Workers in two McDonald's restaurants in Crayford, south east London, and Cambridge made history on Monday 4 September when they became the first ever McDonald's workers in Britain to go on strike. They joined a growing band of McDonald's workers around the world that have unionised and struck to fight one of the biggest and best known global fast food operators. Workers in New Zealand are but just one example of this.
Our strike will be just the beginning. It's the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of fast-food workers in Britain and we believe they're experiencing the same issues as we are. ... We've already got thousands of others preparing to join us - other stores are organising at this point already, but haven't gone public yet.
Indeed, a McDonalds' worker at another restaurant commented: 'Seeing workers mobilise in two restaurants and balloting in favour of action has inspired me to build the union in my workplace and fight for the same pay and conditions'.
In this article, I want to turn to the issue of how it was that the strike came to pass in terms of the internal union organising.
The strike is a major milestone in the work of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU) and the Fast Food Rights campaign. The Fast Food Rights campaign was established in early 2014 to try to replicate the fight of fast food workers in the United States.
But it is worth noting that until the McDonald's strike, the Fast Food Rights campaign has been mainly about protests outside fast food outlets, often largely by those supportive non-fast food workers. The strike signifies that a small number of fast food workers are now prepared to try to close down operations themselves, and critically, to do so from the inside (even if they have to then stand on the picketline outside the strikebound premises). This new found spirit will be critical in determining whether the strike grows into the necessarily bigger challenge to the company (amongst the tens of thousands of workers it employs in Britain) that it must.
If we delve a little deeper, we can see that many years of slow, patient, stop-start work has been put in by the activists with the support of the BFAWU to get to the point of balloting for action and then strike action itself. There have been many small steps forward and many small steps back as interviews with the main activists by the Solidarity and Socialist Worker newspapers attest to.
High staff turnover is a problem as is an anti-union management. But neither factor is insuperable. What appear to have been the critical factors are a small number of steadfast activists and an orientation on i) stressing that the union is the workers themselves, and ii) the agenda of the workplace union must be set by the workers themselves.
Indeed, one the activists recounted in Socialist Worker that: 'A BFAWU organiser said the union is workers coming together to change things that they couldn't change by themselves. We started saying that and that's what really changed things' while another told Solidarity that: 'Our strategy has been to find out what their issues are and how they are affecting them, and get them to imagine what it would be like if it wasn't the case. ... We tell them a union is people like them organising together and using their strength in numbers to win things they couldn't do on their own'.
So at the heart of the lessons to be learnt here about organising the unorganised, sometimes known as the unorganisable or 'precariat', is that workers begin to find the confidence to fight when they decide they can - through their own actions - start to determine their own fates. Already this approach seems to be working for the BFAWU reports that hundreds of McDonald's workers elsewhere in Britain have joined it and are now ready to collectively mobilise themselves.