The draconian actions of the Conservative government in the 1980s coupled with rapidly changing employment models and practices mean that many of those working on minimum-wage zero-hour contracts today will not have experienced highly unionised workplaces during their lifetimes.
Against this backdrop, the UK has also seen an increase in exploitative working practices over the past couple of decades. Zero-hour contracts and the practices rife within the so-called gig economy, in which many employers categorise workers incorrectly as self-employed and therefore deny them the rights to which they are entitled, have left many workers vulnerable and barely able to pay for homes to live in and food to eat. These practices also ensure that businesses have a constant flow of flexible and cheap labour.
Not only have the unions’ ability to negotiate on behalf of workers been stifled in recent years by successive governments, but the ability to enforce rights through the court room was also sent into decline, after the government imposed fees to bring Employment Tribunal claims in 2013.
But, even with all this, the latter half of 2017 seems to be bringing some real hope - to the negotiating table as well as the court room. After the Supreme Court declared Tribunal fees to be unlawful on 26 July, Monday 4 September saw historic industrial action when around 40 workers at McDonald’s went on strike to over low wages and insecure working hours; the first ever strike by McDonald’s staff since McDonald’s first opened in the UK in 1974.
The strikes took place at two restaurants, in Cambridge and in Crayford in South East London, and came about following a ballot in favour of industrial action organised by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).
In addition to the low pay at McDonald’s (which is £7.60 an hour for those over 25 and as low as £4.05 an hour for workers under 18) and zero-hours contracts, workers at McDonald’s have also complained of victimisation as a result of joining trade unions.
“For far too long, workers in fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s have had to deal with poor working conditions, drastic cuts to employee hours and even bullying in the work place – viewed by many as a punishment for joining a union.”
Those who are striking want to be paid £10 per hour, which seems a relatively modest ask given that the Chief Executive of McDonald’s, Steve Easterbrook, earned £11.8million last year. They have been supported by a large number of union members and by the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. They’ve also received considerable press coverage.
One of the really telling things is the reasons given for wanting a pay rise: “At the moment I have to walk to work, which takes an hour” one explained, “£10 an hour would allow me the money to get to work and enable me to pay my bills.”
And another said: “I get about 35 hours a week but even so I can only afford to live because I get all my meals at McDonalds…Before I moved into my current house-share four weeks ago, I was sofa-surfing while trying to save the deposit.”
So they’re not asking to be wealthy: they’re asking to be able to afford to travel to work, to be able to buy food and to have a place to live.
While McDonald’s practices can no doubt be characterised as exploitative, only paying the national minimum wage is not unlawful and nor are zero-hour contracts. Therefore, this situation illustrates the vital role of unions when practices don’t spill over into the unlawful, but when industrial action can effectively work to bring about much needed change.
Of course, there is little that the small group of strikers can do alone. But hopefully other workers will be inspired by the actions of this brave 40. After all, imagine what the entire 85,000 strong workforce of McDonald’s could do together. Or, even better, all of those working on zero-hour contracts in the UK – estimated to be nearly 1 million.
As one of the strikers said:
“Workers can’t fight alone – we can only fight if we’re together.”