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Shaking the Golden Arches

McDonald’s Golden Arches, if not beginning to crumble, are beginning to look distinctly shaky. Chairman and chief executive, Jack Greenberg, walked away from the burger giant after 21 years service at the end of last year–this despite an earlier company request to remain at the helm until 2005. McDonald’s stock had fallen to one third of its value since Greenberg was appointed CEO in 1998, with shares plunging to a seven year low last Autumn.

In December, an explosion injured at least 17 people in Bombay–six of whom were customers and two Bombay McDonald’s members of staff. Faulty air conditioning was reported as being the cause of the explosion. McDonald’s Japan has cut its profit forecast by 91% due to the discovery of mad cow disease in Japan and tough competition from Starbucks and low priced family restaurants offering typical Japanese fare. McDonald’s announced in November that it is to shut 175 stores in 10 countries (pulling out of three countries altogether)–reversing its 20 year policy of expansion.

Attempts at sacking French employees on trumped up charges of theft were overthrown in the courts, while a documentary (On n’est pas des steaks haches–“We’re not minced steak”) was premiered last October on the same day (16/10/02) as an international anti-McDonald’s protest which reached from Milan to Mexico City. In Bonn and Munster, members of the Freie Arbeiterinnen Union (FAU-IAA) leafleted customers and workers under banners bearing the legends “Join the Resistance” and “McJob? No Thanks!”. A demonstration in Mexico resulted in 94 arrests on dubious charges of damage to federal property and carrying explosives (fireworks).

The female McDonald’s workers of Liverpool wore make-up as a small act of defiance (normally prohibited), whilst other disgruntled McDonald’s people resorted to more radical”guerilla” type tactics to throw a spanner in the works: altering food storage microwave settings, resetting grill timers, working strictly to rule, and, of course, strike action.

In October of last year, McDonald’s France took the unusual step of placing a full page advertorial in Femme Actuelle (“McDonald’s: Is It Causing Obesity In Children?”) in response to rising French child obesity rates. One of the nutritionists commissioned to tackle the question concluded that children should visit McDonald’s no more than once a week. Not unsurprisingly, the stateside McDonald’s countered, arguing that “this is the opinion of one consultant in France. We do not share this view at all.”An under construction McDonald’s restaurant in Grenoble was burned to the ground in a suspected arson attack in November. Just don’t mention Jose Bove whatever you do.

That McDonald’s is currently feeling the heat is beyond question: the fall-out from restaurant bombings and anti-globalisation protesters remain only the tip of the iceberg. An increasingly mobilised and politically aware staff can only add to the troubled fast food conglomerate’s current predicament.

The typically teenage staff in your local McDonald’s may well wear the standard issue blue slacks and candy striped shirts topped off with a baseball cap that we have come to associate with the fast food experience. And yes, they are mouthing the McDonald’s “can I take your order here please?” mantra (so ubiquitous a part of daily life that it really should be listed in Simpson’s Quotations). But scratch beneath the surface and you find something very different. The McChicken Sandwich you just ordered may well have been prepared by a member of the Zapatista like McDonald’s Worker Resistance.

Describing itself as “a loose network of McDonald’s employees, always flexible, dynamic and unpredictable, we work together to strengthen the position of workers in relation to our employer”, McDonald’s Workers Resistance (MWR) emerged in 2000 as a “determined response to the idiocy of [our] working lives. It’s an angry rebellion against boredom, exploitation, poverty and discipline…against the idiocy of McDonald’s and capitalism.”

MWR is an independent combination of a few small groups of workers that have united in an attempt to create serious opposition to the company and its alleged dangerous exploitative practices and disciplinarian boot camp culture. Founded by a bunch of twentysomething Glaswegians sick of their McJob lot, MWR has quickly established links with fellow workers as far afield as Alaska and New Zealand. MWR is represented in America by convenors in Florida and Virginia. They also produce McSues, an occasional irreverent take on McDonald’s own McNews in-house publication. Although humourous in intent (“Everything you wanted to know about stealing from McDonald’s!”, “Liberation begins when we put self-respect before burgers!”), McSues has a serious message:

“Working for McDonald’s is dehumanising, there is a ‘procedure’ for every tiny action to make our role almost completely pay is infamously poor, management is frequently very autocratic. We are bombarded with company propaganda and expected to comply with company stipulated ‘appearance requirements’. Theft of wages (clock card entries being altered by managers to save on labour expenses) is rife. Even when your shift finishes, incredibly, you are not free to go and are obliged to stay on should management demand it, which they almost inevitably will. You can’t even go to the toilet with out first obtaining permission. If a shift is unexpectedly quiet and staff are not totally rushed then some staff will be told to go home, if they insist on working their full shift they will often be assigned the most unpleasant cleaning tasks to encourage them to rethink. At other times every day off will be disrupted by a phone call from a stressed, sometimes even tearful, manager begging you to come in and work. The obsessive cost cutting and incessant prioritisation of profit has enormous human costs.”

MWR do not need to be reminded that McDonald’s famously closed a branch in Quebec in order to prevent the staff from unionising. By writing and producing McSues anonymously, they are able to communicate with fellow workers without any of the obvious risks of normal workplace activism.

Eric Schlosser, author of the New York Times Bestseller “Fast Food Nation”, notes that one in eight Americans are employed by McDonald’s at some point in their life. More people now recognise the Golden Arches than they do the Christian Cross. American children are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald than they are Santa Claus.

McDonald’s, like Disney, knows better than most that children are central to the continued success of its business. Marketing guru and author of “Kids as Customers” James McNeal advocates that companies portray themselves as wise, benign, parent figure in the eyes of their doe-eyed charges.

Hence, World Children’s Day TM, McDonald’s Kofi Annan supported “history-making fundraising initiative” to help disadvantaged children worldwide from money raised through Big Mac and Egg McMuffin sales paid to the company’s Ronald cDonald House Charity. “We’re not asking you to give money” said spoon-faced Canadian singer Celine Dion, “we’re asking you to eat at McDonald’s”.

World Children’s Day, as if you didn’t know, is a trademark of McDonald’s. Other money was raised on the day from McDonald’s employee donations. The irony of this was doubtless lost on McDonald’s top brass who set the November 20th date to coincide with the anniversary of the UN adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Schlosser, whose book has resulted in him being compared to Upton Sinclair–author of “The Jungle”, a damning critique of the American meatpacking industry which spurred Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906)–argues that not only are children and teenagers McDonald’s client base, they are also their labour base–providing an available pool of cheap labour. McDonald’s might provide employment to those who might otherwise not have a job, but as Schlosser argues, “the strict regimentation at fast food restaurants creates standardised products. It increases the throughput. And it gives fast food companies a vast amount of power over their employees.”

Employees are a major part of that throughput equation; being as equally–if not more–disposable as the burgers and fries they churn out. The key to McDonald’s success is a marriage of fordist assembly line techniques and uniformity. Sociologist George Ritzer has summed up McDonald’s triumph of fordist efficiency over other human values as “the irrationality of rationality.” Former McDonald’s US Vice President Ronald Beavers admitted as much in 1995, when he observed that “they [McDonald’s crew members] have no guaranteed employment rights. They do not have guaranteed employment or guaranteed conditions of employment.”

The relatively young age and little previous work experience of McDonald’s crew members means that shouting is one of the main methods used by management to discipline staff. “It’s often very funny, but we’ve seen staff reduced to tears. Sometimes it takes a few workers to stand together and tell them to fuck off. Some of the managers like to think they’re hard, and use physical intimidation. They usually know when to back down.”

When erstwhile McDonald’s founder Dick McDonald died in 1998 at the age of 89, McDonald’s Chairman Michael Quinlan was moved to poignant eulogy:

“The global ‘McFamily’ of employees, franchisees and suppliers owes a debt of gratitude to Dick McDonald and his late brother, Mac. The McDonald brothers never dreamed that the restaurant system they conceived at their first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, would eventually touch so many people throughout the world.”

That, as members of McDonald’s Worker Resistance might counter, is a moot point. Upton Sinclair famously said that “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Whether MWR enjoys the same level of success remains to be seen. The tide may not yet be turning, but the burger ain’t flipping:

“We’ve found a voice for our frustrations, we’ve made lasting friendships and we are beginning to regain sovereignty over our lives. Maybe the resistance grows, maybe we can strike globally, maybe the same happens in other workplaces, maybe we occupy our workplaces and collectively take control over the wealth we produce. Maybe not. Either way we will have no regrets.”

Fries with that sir?

MWR can be contacted at http://mwr.org.uk/

WILLIAM MacDOUGALL can be reached at: wmacdougall@msn.com

 

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