Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links

The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #86, November 1998. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

The Burger International  by Liza Featherstone
 Liza Featherstone is a freelance writer. Her followup to this article is also on this website.


Diners may complain about the dry burgers and the soggy rolls, and Wall Street may complain about sagging market share, but McDonald's has done a fine job at what it does best -- taking over the world. It's the largest retail property owner in the United States, and with 23,500 restaurants in 113 countries, also the world's largest food-service corporation. The Golden Arches are the second most recognized symbol in the world (topping the Christian cross, though lagging behind Olympic rings).

McDonald's is also very good at union-busting. It may be one of the most doggedly antiunion companies on earth: In the 1994-7 McLibel trial, McDonald's executives acknowledged quashing some 400 serious unionization efforts worldwide in the early 1970s alone. Nonetheless, this July, when Tessa Lowinger and Jennifer Wiebe, both now 17, were fed up with working conditions in a Squamish, British Columbia (BC), McDonald's, they decided to join a union. "It seemed like the only way," Lowinger says. "We'd tried rap sessions with managers, everything else."

To the two young women, management's disrespect was the primary problem. "If we spilled a drink or forgot a cheeseburger," says Lowinger, "we'd be yelled at in front of the public and our peers." Scheduling was also unfair -- seniority was no guarantee of more or better shifts -- and sick workers were responsible for finding their own replacements. Their equipment was dangerous, too. "One light switch had no panel," says Lowinger. "You'd actually get a shock when you touched it." Huge toasters -- plugged in -- were precariously balanced on a muffin cart, which, says Lowinger, always had to be moved out of the way -- no easy task, since it "weighed maybe a hundred pounds -- it was really hard to move." (At least one person -- Mark Hopkins, of Manchester, England, in 1992 -- has died of electrocution working at McDonald's.) Lowinger has talked to McDonald's workers in Montreal, Ontario, and Ohio, and found "we all have the same problems, with management, with unsafe working conditions. Do they go to some sort of course?"

Wiebe and Lowinger called Canadian Auto Workers Local 3000, and two days later, met with 24-year-old Ryan Krell, the CAW's youth organizer (and former fast-food worker). After four days, they had signed up more than the 55% of their co-workers required by the BC labor code for certification.


Arch adversary

The day after Wiebe and Lowinger began their sign-up campaign, the McDonald's franchise hired 28 new employees, and challenged the certification on the grounds that the newcomers should be allowed to vote. A local lawyer, Randy Kaardal, also challenged the certification bid, representing a group of workers who had signed up for the union but claimed to have changed their minds. Kaardal claimed that under the province's Infants Act, they couldn't join a union without their parents' permission. (He normally charges some C$260 an hour, while the kids he represented make C$7 -- just who was paying his fee?) But the CAW's unfair labor practices complaint against the Squamish McDonald's outlet for the timing of its new hires was strong enough that after two days of hearings, both Kaardal and McDonald's withdrew their challenges. Then, on August 19, the Squamish franchise became the first unionized McDonald's in Canada. (None of the nearly 13,000 U.S. stores are unionized.) Neither Jennifer Wiebe nor Tessa Lowinger realized that their victory would be such a historic first. "They told us after we had won," says Lowinger. "Jen and I just looked at each other and went, 'Whoa.' Kind of puts Squamish on the map, doesn't it?"

Bargaining for the first contract has begun and organizers expect it to be a long, tough process; the McDonald's lawyer is already practicing the timeworn strategy of delaying negotiations. But the shop is strong; Lowinger says: "people who were initially against the union are now on the bargaining committee." When they started the campaign, Lowinger and Wiebe didn't plan to make an issue of their wages -- "Des Peanuts," as their colleagues say up in Montreal, where a much shakier campaign is underway -- but their co-workers have since voted to do so at the bargaining table. (They can't say what else is on the agenda.) In September, the CAW applied to represent workers at a second McDonald's -- this one in Rutland, BC -- but subsequently withdrew the application because of a lack of worker support.

The CAW successes have been watched with intense interest by fast-food workers and unionists throughout North America, among them a group of McDonald's employees in Macedonia, Ohio. Last April the workers, mostly high school and college students, shed their visors and hairnets and organized a five-day strike -- the first strike ever against a U.S. McDonald's. The strikers succeeded in getting management to sign a contract agreeing to some of their demands, including "people skills" classes for rude supervisors, paid vacation for full-time workers, some salary hikes, and "no repercussions" for employees who participated in the strike. But the aftermath was disappointing; managers did improve their manners, but for some workers, per-hour starting wages declined by 25 cents an hour.

The workers then began a campaign to join the Teamsters Local 416, which ground to a standstill in June after two pro-union workers, Bryan Drapp, 19, and Jamal Nickens, 20, showed up to work with "Go Union" painted on their faces and got into a fight with a manager who tried to photograph them. (The manager alleges that Drapp -- the fry cook who had organized the strike -- threatened to break the camera over his head; Drapp, who isn't giving interviews, has admitted that he threatened to break the camera but has denied any threat of physical violence.) Drapp and Nickens were fired -- and, surreally, banned from eating at any of the franchise's outlets. The two have filed an unfair dismissal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; the hearing is scheduled for December 8. Dominic Tocco, president of Teamsters Local 416, says the campaign is on hold for now. "But if the Labor Board rules in their favor," he says, "the kids will start up again." Workers at more than a dozen local McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King outlets, galvanized by the strike and subsequent union drive, have contacted Tocco about joining the Teamsters.

McDonald's sheer might -- and barely legal tactics -- have proved the biggest obstacles to organizing. The $130 billion-dollar fast-food behemoth has the resources to beat unions into the ground; last year, McDonald's hired fifteen lawyers to fight workers at just one restaurant in Quebec. The company has quashed union efforts in Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor, East Lansing (Mich.), San Francisco and worldwide. Several Canadian attempts have also been defeated.

McDonald's strategy in Squamish -- sudden and unnecessary new hires, odd challenges from expensive lawyers mysteriously hired by near-minimum wage workers -- was typical of what CAW organizer Roger Crowther calls "the Big Mac Counter-Attack" to a union campaign. In the CAW's push to organize the Rutland, BC, McDonald's, one vocally pro-union employee was fired, and ten new workers were hired. Last year, in St. Hubert, Quebec, after 51 out of the 62 McDonald's workers signed a request for Teamsters' certification, franchise owners closed the restaurant. (They first, unsuccessfully, tried a number of other ways to break the union, including an "employee challenge" similar to the one in Squamish.) Workers seeking to join the Teamsters in a Montreal McDonald's have enough signatures for certification -- but McDonald's has delayed Labor Board hearings till early December (a year after the union filed its application). With the typically high turnover, only one of the union's original supporters is still working at the restaurant.

It would be tough for anyone to fight a corporate giant with that much economic force at its fingertips. McDonald's workers have long been cited as the classic unorganizable group, at least in North America. As in most of the retail sector, turnover is high; the mostly-young (at the Squamish outlet, 80% of the workers are under 19) employees have preferred, quite understandably, to see their jobs as short-term, and to leave as soon as something better -- school, better-paying job -- came along. Young workers' inexperience is also a huge obstacle. As Lowinger points out, McDonald's is a first job for many people -- indeed, more than 10% of Americans are estimated to have worked their first job at McDonald's -- "so they don't know they have rights."

This summer, a Teamsters effort to unionize one McDonald's in every major city in Quebec failed miserably. Management consistently outsmarted the union. If unionists were waiting in the parking lot to talk to employees, managers would give the kids a ride home. On one such occasion, says Teamsters organizer Rejean Levigne, "they took all the kids to see 'Titanic'! What can you do?"


Did somebody say resistance?

But CAW Local 3000 has a history of successes in this sector. Over the past two years, the local has unionized 12 Vancouver Starbucks stores, and secured a contract -- a global first for the chain. Local 3000 has represented Kentucky Fried Chicken workers in its area for decades -- and has also applied to represent a Denny's restaurant, which if successful will be another global first.

Part of the CAW's unusual success with fast-food workers can be attributed to its willingness to treat young people as a serious constituency, even hiring a special youth organizer -- Ryan Krell. Local 3000 is working overtime to overcome the generation and class gap that often turns these workers away from unions, the perception -- easily, and often, exploited by management -- that they can only serve the interests of aging, well-paid white men.

CAW's triumphs with young workers are unprecedented, but more and more young North American workers are braving the chains. Last year, concession employees at a Cineplex Odeon in Montreal and at a Windsor, Ontario, Wal-Mart negotiated union contracts -- the first ever for both chains. Although Canadian laws are much more favorable to union organizing than those in the United States, the victories have given U.S. union organizers -- and workers -- new hope. Inspired by the Ontario Wal-Mart victory, a number of U.S. Wal-Mart campaigns are currently underway. Meanwhile, employees at Borders Books & Music, in Des Moines, Chicago, and New York, as well as at West Coast chain Noah's Bagels, joined the United Food and Commercial Workers last year, and (mostly young) booksellers are organizing at Barnes & Noble stores around the country.

There is considerable desperation behind this youthful organizing fever. Too much of the economy's endlessly vaunted "growth" is in McJobs. Most Gen-Xers aren't educated for the much-hyped explosion of chic infotech jobs -- which isn't all that much of a gusher anyway: as UFCW vice president Beth Shulman pointed out in the November/December 1996 American Prospect, "Wal-Mart is the largest creator of jobs in the United States -- not Intel, not Boeing, not Microsoft." Young workers as a group are earning much less relative to national averages than earlier generations.

Younger workers used to see retail jobs as transitional, but now many have to stick with them indefinitely. Hoping for better wages, benefits, and work conditions, they're turning, increasingly, not to other industries, but to unions. It still remains to be seen just how well unions will accommodate the new activists. Unions have historically shunned the young, low-wage workers that staff the retail sector, but that may be changing. "[Unions] are starting to realize this is where the jobs of the future are, that this is where all those young people attending university are going to end up," says John Henson, a United Steelworkers organizer who worked on Ontario's recent Wal-Mart negotiations. "And this is the sector that needs unions the most."

The CAW's Roger Crowther points out that his local has cultivated these workers partly as a matter of its own survival; the region has had a fast-food-dependent economy for years. Increasingly, that model is dominating the North American labor market. Kids like Tessa Lowinger and Bryan Drapp -- once the antithesis of organizable labor -- now look like organized labor's future.

Some smart organizers are starting to think like the chains: big. That means spending money, and coordinating efforts. Taking on a multibillion-dollar, multinational chain is a tough job for a small union local; Patsy Shafer, an organizer working on several Wal-Mart campaigns in northern Wisconsin, says "What I'd like to see is a unified, national Wal-Mart campaign, maybe through the AFL-CIO. That would be a big strain on the company -- they couldn't be everywhere all the time."

But don't ask Tessa Lowinger about organizing any more McDonald's franchises. "We've still got to get through bargaining with this one," she says, sounding tired. A negotiating meeting has just been canceled. McDonald's canceled it? She says again: "It got canceled."

Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links