The trade union question
More than any other corporation on earth McDonalds is notorious for its obsessive, determined and frequently illegal attempts at obstructing trade union activity within its workforce. After the legendary McLibel trial, the high court determined that McDonalds was “antipathetic” towards trade unions. No shit. Tactics used to fight trade unions have included, in France, framing crew member Hassen Lamti for armed robbery, before offering him a bribe to renounce the union. Around the world McDonalds has been responsible for a mass of illegal dismissals of trade union activists. In Canada they made workers lie outside in the snow in the shape of a “no” (to unions). Other anti-union campaigns have involved an “anti-union slide show”, a visit from a top baseball player, a bingo night... They are prepared to engage in lengthy, obstructive legal battles, and frequently shut down whole stores should trade union recognition become unavoidable, in Puerto Rico they pulled out of the whole country following a dispute and opened some years later with non-unionised labour. In the past they have used lengthy polygraph tests (lie detectors) to screen for union sympathisers. They employed John Cooke to “keep the unions out”, he stated in an internal memo that “we do used polygraph tests in a Gestapo type manner”. According to Cooke, “unions are inimical to what we stand for and how we operate. They peddle the line to their members that the boss will be forever more against their interests”.
Clearly, if trade unions did not offer a very real opportunity for workers to improve their conditions, McDonalds would not have opposed them so obsessively. We strongly support all attempts by McDonalds workers to win trade union recognition and warmly extend solidarity to all McWorkers who are trade union members. Workers in unionised stores (for example in Scandinavia, Italy, Mexico) usually experience higher pay and marginally better conditions. If you are familiar with our ambitions then you will know that a marginal pay increase is very far short of what we desire. It is like setting off from Glasgow on a journey to New York and getting as far as Stirling.
However, there is more to a trade union than an extra few pence an hour and a pension scheme. The trade union makes explicit the oppositional relationship between the workers and the bosses, it also provides the structures through which workers can carry on the class struggle. If we worked somewhere there was an established trade union I think most of us would certainly join and work within the union arguing for a radical agenda.
However, unlike the Workers Resistance Against McDonalds, our programme is not focused on unionisation. There are a number of reasons for this.
Most of the unions McDonalds workers might be expected to join are, at present, conservative institutions intent on feeding money to the loathsome Labour Party, run by bloated overpaid bureaucrats, and are more interested in providing financial services to their members than reversing social injustice. Looking at the state of the bureaucratic labour movement reinforces our conviction that workers must control our own struggles. The trade union leaders, like politicians, quickly become distanced from those they claim to represent and come to establish a separate interest group. It is well documented how trade unions have let down workers on numerous occasions over the past two decades. Sometimes this has been a result of the spineless, crawling, spoiled leadership, and sometimes a consequence of the institutionalisation of the unions themselves- fear of losing assets for sanctioning secondary picketing, for example.
The senior trade union bureaucrats have no interest in challenging capitalism- they owe their wealth and power to the status quo- while the union institution itself requires the continuation of the wage system for its preservation.
Where workers are already organised in trade unions there may be a case for trying to radicalise the union, and certainly for workers to use the structures of the union to advance the class struggle. However, this is very different from proposing that new workers organisations should stick to the deficient format of the traditional trade union- a format that has proved unable to challenge capitalism and largely unable, or unwilling, to operate in McDonaldized workplaces. The traditional trade union movement has had several decades now to respond to casualisation- today only one in five casual workers and 6% of all workers under 20 are in a trade union. Every other trade unionist is a professional and over a third have a degree. A middle aged manager with a mortgage and a private pension is more likely to be in a union than workers like us. We’re certainly not against unions (or middle aged people with mortgages and private pensions!), we just recognise that we need something more.
It is exceedingly difficult to unionise a McDonalds restaurant (in some situations it is completely impossible where a successful vote will just lead to the branch being shut down), partly because of McDonalds extreme hostility towards unions, but largely because of the exceptionally high turnover. Our first attempt at organisation was an attempt to unionise. We collected signatures from 70% of crew members at our store but so great was the turnover that five weeks later we had signatures from only a minority of employees. Some of the new employees we hadn’t even met. In these conditions we think the loose non-membership approach of MWR is more effective.
There is some cause for optimism. The McDonaldization of employment may have proved a crisis for the labour movement and for workers, but for workers it may yet prove an opportunity- an opportunity to develop new, more effective, more radical organisations, organisations capable of transforming society.
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