McStrike, low wage work and the future of unions

We speak to workers, customers, economists, organisers, and politicians about workers' rights in the 21st century

Last week, McDonald’s workers in the UK made history. For the first time, employees from two branches went on strike – demanding better pay, an end to zero hours contracts and union representation.

Unions are in decline in the UK and the US. In the UK, membership is at an all time low – particularly among young people, in fact two out of five union members are aged over 50, that’s a lot, when you think people retire at like 60/65.

But it’s not like workers’ rights aren’t an issue for young people. As Conversations about low-wage, gig-work and zero hours contracts work are becoming more and more frequent in the media and in government. Why have our economies become so reliant on flexible work, and how can people make sure their rights are secured?

Sad clown
A very unhappy Ronald McDonald


The McDonald’s workers' strike was about wages and insecure working hours, and one that workers told us they were confident they’d win.

For Tristan, one of the striking McDonald’s workers we spoke to, being on a zero hours contract means he can’t count on how much money he’ll make week to week. He said, “I go to college, I only work on the weekends. I need the Saturday and Sunday work, so if I only get one of those days I’m missing half my pay. It stops me from going to college, I have to borrow money."


McDonald's workers, Jess and Tristan

But what about the customers? Would they support the workers, or McDonalds? Would they pay more for their burger if it meant staff were paid better? We spoke to customers of a McDonald’s around the corner, and most of the people who agreed to talk to us seemed to feel some empathy with the staff – partly because they’d been in similar job situations before, or knew what it was like.

McDonald's Stike Sheni


That's Sheni (above), who thought that McDonald’s should be passing some of its earnings onto its staff: “They’re working hard. It’s always busy. I think £10 an hour is fair. People want to be happy with their work, they want to have a stable future.

"The point isn’t about how much the burgers cost. If you’re making a billion a year you can top up the salary of the staff.”


McDonald's Strike Paul


But not everyone's on side. We also met Paul, who’d had enough of strikes full stop: "Train strikes, the miners' strike, it just holds the country at hostage. If everyone does it, the economy shuts down.

It's all part of a much bigger picture

For Ian Hodson, president of the BAFWU (the union responsible for the strike), standing up to McDonald’s is part of a bigger fight for securing rights for people in low-wage insecure work.

In theory, zero-hours contracts could work for some people – students looking for flexible work, for example. But, Hodson says, that's not the reality for people working at companies like McDonald's.

“We’ve got some people going on strike in their 40s. It’s not a stepping stone to a future career. These zero-hours jobs are people's only option for employment."

Zero-hours contracts aren’t new. McDonald’s was the first company to introduce them to the UK in the 1970s. But the number of people on them is increasing – at the end of 2016, there were nearly 1.7 million people on one. For some of the young people we spoke to, it’s all they’ve ever known.

Standing up for your rights isn’t what it used to be

Old fashioned strike
Robert Owen started a campaign for an 8-hour working day in the late 18th century

Restrictions on unions have got progressively tighter, and as membership has declined, so have a lot of the protections that striking workers are given. In the UK, people date it back to Margaret Thatcher, who infamously called unions “the enemy within”, and introduced measures to break up their power after a series of long public sector strikes.

People in the UK and the US still have a right to strike, and there are regulations that protect them from getting fired, say, or from being penalized in future employment. But in an environment of insecure work, lots of the people we’ve spoken to say that the fear of losing your job and being replaced is still real. In the US, major employers like Walmart have been pretty openly anti-strike, and in 2015 it was found that Walmart had unlawfully dismissed striking workers.


John McDonnell speaking to journalists


John McDonnell, who does the economics policy for the Labour Party in the UK and was a big supporter of the McDonald’s strike, told us at the rally: “When we’ve spoken to other workers in the sector we’ve found a lack of confidence about going on strike, because they were worried about victimisation when they get back to work…”

Are strikes even a good way to do it?


We asked two economists whether studies actually back up the idea of strikes in the first place. “If workers can easily be replaced by other workers, their ‘bargaining power’ is pretty low,” they said. “Advances in technology are really reducing the power of workers to fight their corner. In low-wage, manufacturing jobs, people can just be replaced by obedient robots, and that’s the end of that."

Going on strike in the 21st century is just likely to harm the striking worker more than the employer, they said: “It feels like these days, the power is just really imbalanced… no-one in their right mind is going to put their house in jeopardy, or not be able to pay rent."

“Employers suffer financial damage, but evidence suggests it doesn’t take too long to recoup the losses. But once an employee has lost their wage, they can’t get that back without working overtime.”

Workers rights in the 21st century

Larry Williams – Lean Startup Conference
Larry Williams is launching the Facebook for unions

So how do workers make sure they’re getting a fair deal? For the growing number of people not working in full-time permanent work with an obvious union representative and an HR department, understanding where you stand can be difficult. But, argues Asher Dresner, a lot of that just has to do with the way that information is organized. He’s launched a new platform which he thinks can help.

For a lot of the people we spoke to this week – from union campaigners to McDonald’s strikers – the role of unions in this argument is just beginning. We met a young union president, called Larry Williams Junior, who’s using his digital skills to try and make unions fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.

“What we’re doing is becoming more and more relevant because my generation – the ‘millennials’, as we’re called – are thinking, ‘Hey, this is something that our parents had, and we should have it too.’”

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