McDonald’s aren’t known for their pro-union approach (indeed, they’re a global by-word for exactly the opposite) so when I arrived for a summer holiday in Washington DC (technically “the people’s republic of Takoma Park”, just next door) I wasn’t expecting to find that the worldwide burger company was being accused of promoting strike action. And, you won’t be surprised to know, that wasn’t their intention.
The USA’s transition from a blue-collar but middle-class, manufacturing economy to a service sector precariat full of – well, this is what they’re called, after all – McJobs, has seen McDonald’s overtake General Motors as the iconic employer of labour. The McJobs are temporary, unskilled and non-union. So, unsurprisingly, they pay minimum wage at best (some workers see their earnings reduced by being paid in debit cards that fleece them of even more money – the 21st century equivalent of the company store.)
But the people who do such jobs are getting restless, and this year there have been a spate of walkouts, protests and one day strikes by unorganised fast food workers, backed by faith groups, community activists and unions. And McDonald’s just did a fantastic job of proving their point with a fatuous and frankly offensive guide to ‘practical money skills’.
It suggested that budgeting on a low income is possible, but only if you work two jobs for a total of 60 hours a week (based on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour), don’t pay childcare or petrol (although it DID include paying for car purchase and insurance). And that was supposed to leave $30 – £20 – a day for food and other ‘incidentals’.
So fast food workers definitely have a point when they ask for the minimum wage to be doubled, and progressives have a raise for saying that if fast food workers don’t get a pay rise, the communities where they are the major earners won’t escape from poverty.
These workers are unlikely to unionise in traditional terms – their temporary contracts and atomised employment units make traditional organising difficult. But unions are backing their case for a hike in the minimum wage; and looking at other ways to draw them into the union family: the AFLCIO’s four yearly convention this September is considering how to reform the trade union movement to reach beyond (but not replace) collective bargaining.
Trade unionism is often considered to be an unchanging, monolithic dinosaur, but it can and does adapt to labour market changes (I have a pamphlet in my office which recounts how trade unionism was once considered trapped in craft occupations, and would never manage to unionise the semi-skilled car manufacturing plants of the 1930s!) Now we – and US unions in particular – need to make that shift again, and unionise a new generation of jobs.