Transcript of a speech by Wayne from MWR to the Canadian Labour Congress' Mid-Term Conference in Ottawa on October 18 2003.
Well I'm very grateful for the chance to address you and very glad to be here, it's my first time over here, I've worked for McDonalds for 6 years but it's only now I visit Canada that I really understand service culture. I've got to admit, I like it. I mean I know they don't really care, but it's still better to be told to have a nice day by someone who doesn't mean it than to be told to fuck off by someone who does.
I'm involved with an organisation called McDonalds Workers Resistance and by way of a warning I'll tell you that we're a non-hierarchical network of McDonalds workers committed to using solidarity and direct action to take wealth and power from a bunch of indolent fat cats in order to redistribute it equally amongst the hourly paid workforce. So that's where I'm coming from, I'm going to talk about youth and labour and I guess I'm going to kind of shoot from the hip, so I hope I don't piss any one off.
Then when I'm done I can get back to the hot tub. I am having a great time here, I'm staying in this lovely hotel, it's very civilised. I've got a bathroom bigger than my damned flat at home. The only other time I stayed in a hotel... I was at a union conference in the Netherlands. I really need to ditch McDonalds and get myself a union job, the perks are so much better.
At this conference in the Netherlands, it was specifically about McDonalds, and me and some others were trying to get the unions interested in the kind of stuff we were doing. And I remember the delegate from the AFL, he said, "there is a union way of doing things, this is not the union way". And I thought, I didn't say it because I was too shy, but I thought, how many McDonalds has the AFL organised? There's a union way of doing things and it doesn't always work. So we have to be open to alternatives. Right?!
Especially when dealing with young people. Don't get me started on young people today, god they make me mad. Apathetic TV ogling morons. With their baggy clothes and repetitive beats...
Ken Georgetti was in the UK a while back, at the TUC conference, and he said, "young Canadians are disconnecting from politics, they are giving up. I am told this is also the case in the United Kingdom". Well that's almost a truism isn't it? Young people are apathetic; they've given up. It's derived largely from a recognition that young people don't vote. It's true, I don't know anybody who votes, it's like pogo-sticking, we just don't do it anymore. Do you have Big Brother here, the TV show? In the UK more young people voted in the Big Brother nominations than voted in the general election! It's fair enough; the winner of Big Brother gets seventy grand and a part time job on day time TV while the winner of the general election gets a whole country to piss on for the next five years. And young people aren't that involved with the labour movement.
But are they apathetic? Well I was at this arms fair last month, not purchasing unfortunately, but representatives of Rwanda and Uganda were, two countries both arming both sides in the Congolese civil war, a war that's claimed millions of lives already, if you can't get motivated by that then there's something wrong. Well, most of the people protesting were 'young people'; I didn't meet any union officials. 'Young people' dominate these anti-capitalist protests. Many 'young people' resisted the war in Iraq. All over the world, school kids organised themselves and went on strike. How many trade unions can say the same? Where I was school kids suffered broken bones at the hands of riot police rather than abandon their sit down protest. Maybe we should all reflect on our respective commitments before talking about who has given up.
No, there is complacency at work here, a reluctance to consider that the problem may be with the labour movement itself. I would contend that the international labour movement is not as successful as some people like to think. It's certainly had successes but let us consider certain principles that were important at its inception, like... redistribution of wealth. You remember that? Sure takes you back doesn't it? Well since the labour movements inception, gaps between rich and poor have grown to unprecedented levels, individuals have personal fortunes greater than small countries' GDPs while the majority of the worlds population live on less than two dollars a day. That represents a pretty categorical failure.
And what about opposition to militarism? More people have died in human conflict since 1900 than in the entire history of humanity before that date and the labour movement has been consistently ineffective in opposing wars from the "great war" to Iraq.
Many young people are obviously passionately concerned about issues such as militarism and global inequity, but they look at the respective records of badminton clubs and trade unions with regards to these issues and figure neither are about to change very much. So instead they join protest organisations, activist groups. The problem with that is we have no power on the streets, we have power in our workplaces- Two million people marched through London against the war, it was the biggest protest the UK had ever seen and it was a waste of time. If two million people had have gone on strike against the war then I doubt very much Britain would have been involved.
Obviously economic stuff comes first - we have always organised first and foremost around wages and conditions - but especially for young workers who may not have any dependents, this may not be the best way to motivate them. We have been consistently impressed by the ethical commitment of many within the McDonalds workforce.
McDonalds... McDonalds isn't all bad - it's a great place to go for a dump if you're travelling in a foreign country - but it is very hostile to unions. I've heard that some people consider McDonalds to be a "black hole" of organising. Well, I can understand that. It's got a high turnover and it's notoriously hostile to unions. The English High Court once described them as "antipathetic" towards unions- no shit! They used to use lie detector tests to screen for union sympathies. But that's the way it is, it's healthy, if a company wants a unionised workforce then I reckon the union involved needs to have a long look at itself.
Organising at McDonalds is difficult and it might not be good business but it's far from impossible. Just compare the difficulties to some that workers have faced. Think of the North American labour movement in the early twentieth century and the great struggles for the eight-hour day and other victories that are today being eroded amidst fairly minimal opposition. I think of workplaces where the workers spoke fourteen different languages, couldn't read or write and had to contend with armed militias and dire restrictions on free speech. But they could organise themselves. Now with all our resources, all our education, all the technology that's available to us, we can't organise a McDonalds? Of course we can.
But in the UK McDonalds has been present for 28 years, there are over 1,200 restaurants and there has never been one unionised. That's a staggering failure on behalf of a labour movement that's more comfortable selling financial schemes to middle managers than engaging in the difficult and financially unrewarding business of organising McDonaldised workforces.
MWR is just one wee response to the difficulties I have mentioned. It started as an attempt by a group of teenagers to use direct action to resist exploitation at one restaurant in Scotland. We soon realised that in order to be effective we had to communicate with other McDonalds workers around the UK and the rest of the world. To give you an idea of the budget we worked on, when we used to send out bundles of our magazine, we would smear soap on the stamps so it could be washed off along with the postal mark and we could reuse the stamps. Apologies to comrades present from the postal service! But the message has been picked up because it was produced by McDonalds workers and resonated with other McDonalds workers.
Perhaps the ambition shouldn't be to organise young workers but to encourage and help them to organise themselves, to allow them to dictate the terms of their own struggle. A grassroots approach like that is both democratic and effective, but it also has a wonderful effect on people. Through being directly involved in our own struggle we have educated ourselves and challenged a lot of prejudices. Voting for a politician or just paying your union dues can't do that.
On October 16th last year we organised the first ever international mobilisation by the McDonalds workforce. Although the planned strikes in three London restaurants and six in Paris didn't quite work, although an attempted strike in New Zealand lasted about a minute, although the resistance was small compared to the size of McDonalds, it was a great day! They went slow in Birmingham, workers leafleted customers in several places, they sabotaged stock in Australia, sabotaged machines in Chicago, stopped work in Moscow, there was a blockade in Italy, pickets in Germany... I couldn't begin to tell you everything that happened that day.
Officially our actions were about demanding the right to establish the organisations of our choice. In practise we were demonstrating to ourselves and other workers that we do not need anybody's permission to organise internationally on our terms.
We need to consider new innovations but also forgotten tactics from the past- direct action, confrontation, internationalism, but most of all, imagination.
"There is a union way of doing things"? That attitude has to be repudiated. There are potentially infinite ways of doing things and it is up to us to explore them all.