Lessons from McStrike

Submitted by AWL on 11 September, 2019 - 8:36 Author: Justine Canady

Last year the “McStrike” campaign got an enthusiastic response from many labour movement left and labour movement activists.

But now, for a long time, there haven’t been any local branch meetings for fast food workers, any meetings for workers in the “McStrike” campaign, or meetings with organisers about the direction of the campaign. What went wrong?

Over the last year or so I’ve worked in Wetherspoons, and before that in Brixton McDonalds. Another worker previously involved in cinema worker organising was already working at Brixton when I started there.

From the start we were told by the Bakers Union to get the store out on strike for 4 October 2018, an international day of action for fast food workers from various countries.

I was keen to sign up members to the union but was told by organisers that signing up new members wasn’t a priority.

The priority was to get them to commit to strike action. The Bakers Union, for instance, only has paper membership forms (no online facility). It took a long time even to get the forms I needed to sign myself up, let alone for my colleagues.

The two of us at Brixton repeatedly asked to be put in contact with other McDonalds workers in the union, but were fobbed off. Instead we ended up cancelling a meeting in Brixton arranged for local workers because we were told this would clash with a union meeting.

I raised concerns about striking on 4 October. We had no union members signed up. People were interested in some of what we were saying, but we were still in the early stages.

I was told that it was important for the whole McStrike campaign to get Brixton McDonalds on strike. The union had lost the Crayford and Cambridge stores because they had pulled out their main organisers from there, and had them working on the wider McStrike campaign.

On the 4th we got no one to walk out with us. Management hadn’t scheduled on workers who they thought were sympathetic to us. We had an effect, but it wasn’t a real strike. No one in that store was ready to take strike action. If the strike had been scheduled for a month later, I think it would have been different.

The other locations where there had previously been strikes only managed to bring out one or two people from each store. Where there had previously been a growing union branch, there were only one or two members left.

After strike action, key organisers had been pulled out of stores, or the union didn’t keep pushing activity because in their eyes when one strike happened then their job was more or less done.

The McStrike campaign was not a workers’ campaign aimed at building a strong and lasting union presence in the fast food industry and winning day-to-day issues for workers in stores. It was largely a PR campaign. For example, the time chosen for the Brixton picket (8-9 a.m.) was to fit into the media cycle, not the workplace timetable.

One organiser’s entire job was more or less to go around the country to talk about how great the McStrike was. It’s no wonder that the union quickly lost so many members after a strike day- the union didn’t actually do anything for them, so why stick around?

The way in which the campaign was organised — by finding one key organiser in every store — meant that no other workers got the experience of trying their hand at it or stepping up. So when one person left a store, it fell apart.

Look at what the Unite union did in New Zealand. They didn’t just go in and declare that they would be striking over pay or some other issue that they felt was going to get people out. They talked with the workers in the fast food places and built up their demands from that.

The McStrike campaign could usefully publish more information on what Unite actually did. Unite, after all, is the only union to ever gain recognition with McDonald’s except in countries where recognition is more or less mandatory.

Here, it was not only expected, but enforced, that the union nationally and its full-timers made the decisions and ran the campaign.

This could sound miserable, but I’m not disheartened though. 4 October 2018 did bring together the strikers at Wetherspoons and TGI Friday’s, the couriers, and others who were all taking part in actions.

The Spoons workers want to build a rank-and-file network to take control of the campaign. The two Spoons union branches from Brighton gave a good example of what branches should actually look like in these work places — made up entirely by people who were working there and got fed up, not with people sent in to “salt” the workplace.

It took about a year for them to get most the workers on board, but it’s quite strong, and they are really keen to build the campaign.

The answer is to follow the example of the Wetherspoons workers, actually build union branches in McDonalds workplaces, and organise strikes for a Saturday night. This would genuinely disrupt business and could also be fun.

Expand the demands of the strike to include workplace harassment. Use the #metoo campaign to raise genuine workplace issues.

Workers do care about getting higher pay, but it was not the immediate issue which workers at our store feel motivated to organise around. Workers in ten McDonalds stores in the USA did strike over sexual harassment.

Plan organising meetings with other workers. Organise joint events like fundraisers and talks.

Produce joint materials setting out what we have achieved and want to achieve, how we will do it a long-term vision for workers on the high street

Organise joint days of action — for example focusing on International Women’s Day and May Day

We need coordinated intervention into our unions (mainly in this case the Bakers’ Union) and to get local Labour parties and local labour movements actively campaigning.

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