An interesting reflective interview with McDonalds Workers Resistance as it was winding down in December 2003.
The McDonalds Workers Resistance is big inspiration for us and we hoped to talk of a lively movement but you tell us things no longer go well?
One problem is that most of the people, myself included, who have been administrating MWR for many years have left McDonalds. The reasons are various but generally we just couldn't bear to work there any longer, I'd been in that job since early '97 and it really takes a toll. It also became apparent that we just weren't as good at organising any more. We're getting old, approaching our mid 20s (its old relative to McDonalds workforce!) and our strength was always that we were writing and organising in a way that was specifically relevant to the McWorkforce. Perhaps because of that and because of the cycles these things go in (MWR has always had a high turnover reflecting the turnover in the workforce), the movement hasn't really grown as we thought it might have. In the build up to October 16th more and more people got involved, we expected that this would happen, to an even greater extent as we built the £6.00 campaign- it hasn't. We set up a new e-mail forum and it only has 70 members. We printed thousands of stickers and demand has been steady but by no means dramatic. We are quite disappointed that the current crop of people who have become involved with MWR are, for whatever reasons, reluctant to suggest and pursue their own initiatives although we have always emphasised that the only way to be involved in MWR is through direct participation. This means that the organisation has for some months not been functioning as vibrantly and democratic as it once did. I think it became a problem that other younger workers knew we had been doing this for a very long time and tended to defer to us rather than pointing out where we were obviously fucking up.
We have always been adamant that MWR has to be controlled entirely by McDonalds workers and so now our involvement has to come to an end. It may be that this actually helps regenerate things, that other workers have more confidence to take the lead now we have gone.
What now is the future of this organisation?
Regarding the administrative duties, we are looking at setting things up so as much as possible is administrated electronically and someone has volunteered to continue to post out material to people who write off for it. I fully expect that MWR will re-emerge with a new crop of young angry workers; I don't think McDonalds have seen the last of this cancer. There is so much degradation involved in the job that people will always rebel and through everything that has been written and the forums that have been established, and the example that has been set, workers will keep talking to each other and keep fighting back.
How many people are MWR now?
It's difficult to tell, but MWR is certainly much smaller and, more importantly, less active than it was this time last year.
Despite of this the MWR is still the most successful organisation for McDonalds workers in the English talking world is it not?
We would like to think so! But to what extent we have been successful is contentious. We can say that in numerical terms we have probably involved more McDonalds employees than any other workers organisation, but this is quite different from saying we were successful.
What reason could you make this big organisation?
We were, for a time, comparatively successful at developing a network of McDonalds workers for a number of reasons. We have never tried to play the union role of mediating between workers and bosses; we have always tried to fan the flames of discontent. Obviously only a very small fraction of McDonalds workforce have ever been involved but when you consider that we have never had any budget to build our resistance, that we used to smear soap on postage stamps so we could reuse them, then the uptake has been pretty good. In the English speaking world, far more McWorkers have been involved with MWR over the years than have ever been involved with any of the extravagantly funded but much more conciliatory union campaigns that have failed to organise in McDonalds. Part of that is because we stumbled upon innovative ways of organising that got round some of the problems of repression and hostile labour laws that unions faced. But also it is because our position of open confrontation resonated powerfully with a workforce that, despite their reputation, is not so stupid as to be unable to at least implicitly understand the nature of their exploitation. Quite simply, it is not a team, not a partnership, it's a racket set up to make money and that is manifestly obvious to McWorkers through our experiences on the shop floor.
We tried to keep things humorous and directly relevant to the McDonalds workforce, we tried just to take the things that people were saying at work and put then in an explicitly political context. So it was immediately relevant to McDonalds workers. We met the company head on, launched “violent symbolic assaults on corporate imagery” (lots of jokes about Ronald McDonald's alleged paedophilia) and took the piss out of the corporation and everything it stood for.
We broke with the traditional habit of organising across an industry and this undoubtedly helped us because it grabbed the attention of our constituency in a way that a “retail workers network” probably wouldn't have.
We made it loose, informal and easy to participate in. We charged no dues and promoted direct action at every possible opportunity.
We operated secretly, wearing balaclavas in photographs and communicating using pseudonyms. While this was enormously frustrating and not a way of organising anybody in their right mind would ever adopt through choice (we could never even meet face to face with most of our comrades because we have always assumed MWR is heavily infiltrated), it's probably the only option within the McDonalds workforce at the present time and made it very difficult for the company to crush the rebellion.
It doesn't seem very surprising that workers were interested in what we were saying, even by the standards of capitalist “employment opportunities” it's an awful job, why would people not want to resist their exploitation? We just stumbled on a structure that afforded some possibilities for workers in our particular situation. We stumbled on it because we built a structure based on our practical everyday situation, not based on theories or traditions of class struggle or trade unionism (which we knew nothing of initially anyway).
Yes please can you say how this has all started?
We tried to start a legally recognised union, back in '98 when we were owed a lot of bonus money, and it failed miserably. We collected signatures from about 40 workers out of a payroll of about 60, but the turnover was so high that by the time we'd figured out what to do next, 10 of our signatories had quit or been fired and another 15 had been hired.
This is why you then reject the trade unions?
I don't think we rejected the trade unions, I think they rejected us. In the UK McDonalds has been present for 28 years and they have over 1200 restaurants, there has never been one unionised. That represents a staggering failure on behalf of a labour movement that is more comfortable selling financial schemes to middle managers than engaging in the difficult and financially unrewarding business of organising casualised workplaces. There is no evidence that the labour movement in the UK has either the inclination or ability to organise at McDonalds.
Yes this could be maybe true but it isn't proving that the union way is wrong?
For us it wasn't an option because it doesn't work at McDonalds in the UK just now, not with the high turnover and repressive labour laws. And most of the places where MWR spread - Canada, the US, Australia - have a similar situation. But we felt that even if the union way was not going to work, we still had to do something and from that MWR grew. It's not something we are upset about. In some ways we are glad to have had a space free from bureaucratic trade unionism because it has allowed us to experiment with more democratic and radical structures.
Yes but if you are not having a system for choosing positions is it democratic?
MWR went through three main phases. It started off at one restaurant in Scotland and it was like a cross between a drinking club and a Masonic lodge. We pissed about at work, implemented direct democracy and insisted on voting on every petty decision, like who should empty the bin. But it soon became clear that there was very little we could do at one restaurant and that we had to communicate with other McDonalds workers around the UK and the rest of the world.
The original group was then a collective propagandising to other individuals and groups of McDonalds workers who were also advocating and spreading their ideas. The individuals and collectives were loosely networked under the banner MWR but they were autonomous and didn't ask permission of the others before doing things. For example, our collective took a decision to call for the global day of action on October 16 th without consulting anyone else. We were self critical and felt this was undemocratic.
This prompted the third phase of MWR, when we tried to establish a federated, semi-formalised decision making process more reminiscent of the traditional union model. With retrospect I think this was a mistake- we were making decisions with people we had never met in some half formalised federated structure built around e-mail groups. Given the secrecy enforced on our organisation, this was the best we could do. Even deciding whether we were demanding £5.00 or £6.00 an hour took a month. It also robbed collectives of their spontaneity, as they too felt bound by a bad democracy they hardly participated in. Finally, we were again defeated by McDonalds high turnover because the groups and individuals who had taken decisions had sometimes changed jobs before they could be enacted and this had a disheartening effect.
Was the second phase really undemocratic? I no longer think so. If you write a book saying people should take direct action, is it undemocratic? So if one collective calls on other autonomous collectives and individuals to take direct action, is it undemocratic? They are free to take part or not. This is an oversimplification but the point is that attempting to mimic the traditional structures of workers organisations was, for us, a mistake.
MWR is now embarking on a fourth phase.
Will you tell us something of the big successes of this organisation?
Well as I said before, I think it's difficult to say we were successful. If we are to be honest, we failed or at least have not succeeded so far. I cannot tell you that we raised our wages after a heroic strike or anything vaguely approaching that. I can tell you of small victories of local collectives where they challenged particular sources of grievance at their store and won- we gained some of the bonuses we were owed and slowed the pace of work, the girls in Liverpool got to wear make up, elsewhere particular managers were challenged and certain procedures were resisted.
But perhaps the real success has been in the resistance itself, not necessarily what we won. Someone once said that if you cannot be free then the extent to which you resist is the extent to which you are free. Perhaps it sounds weak but I would suggest the real successes were internal. It is also possible that had the company not had some fear of workers rebellion, our conditions would have been deteriorated still more severely as McDonalds profits began to erode.
Will you tell us of the “Global McStrike”, this is a very amazing thing?
Yes it was a very inspiring day. I wont try and tell you everything that happened here because there really was so much, but there is a report at http://www.geocities.com/globaldayofaction. It was probably the first international mobilisation by the McDonalds workforce and it exceeded all our expectations. Officially we were demanding the right to establish the organisations of our choice but in practice we were demonstrating that we do not need anybody's permission to organise internationally on our terms. Relative to the McDonalds Corporation the resistance took place on a very small scale and not everything went according to plan. There were problems with the planned strikes at six restaurants in Paris and the attempted strikes at three stores in London were no more than partial, while an attempted strike in New Zealand lasted about a minute. But one strike in England held up quite well and they went slow in Birmingham, picketed in Germany, blockaded in Milan, stopped work briefly in Moscow, sabotaged equipment in Chicago, walked out in Nottingham, leafleted customers in the Midlands and stole from the tills in Dublin. The international McStrike reached from Milan to Malmo, from Adelaide to Aberdeen. We were so optimistic after that, we really thought we could continue to grow exponentially; unfortunately it has proven to be the crescendo thus far.
Will you say something of your other activities even if you do not think they made successes?
Well some things we have done very successfully I think. We have answered probably thousands of enquiries from McDonalds workers about everything from facial hair to rape. We have given workers advice, support, even just someone to talk to. For many workers we have performed at least some of the functions of a trade union.
We have also inspired and supported local campaigns at a number of stores, some of which I have already mentioned.
We spread a lot of information and challenged a lot of ideas, a lot of people (ourselves included) were politicised through MWR and will take that with them as they leave McDonalds and go on in life.
After the global day of action we organised a go slow in solidarity with some prisoners in Mexico arrested at an anti-McDonalds protest, and with the popular rebellion in Argentina. There were a number of reasons why this was not that successful- it was too abstract and was organised at too short notice.
We consistently opposed militarism and some people walked out of work to join protests on the day they invaded Iraq.
We distributed a lot of practical information to help people survive the job- to scam and cheat their way through a shift!
We started a pay campaign to demand £6.00 an hour although this has faltered as the organisation ran into problems like I mentioned before.
We have hopefully entertained a bit and cheered people up!
How were you able to communicate with so many workers without having much money?
We produced two issues of a magazine called ‘McSues'. They were distributed all over the world and we produced 2000 copies of each.
Despite being so computer illiterate that we thought windows 2000 was a double glazing firm, we produced a large website that has been viewed by tens of thousands of McDonalds workers. We sought to use electronic media, not just as a reflection of our organisation but as an active constitutive part of our organisation. MWR groups in the Midlands and Manchester also made websites.
We've tried to use the mass media, usually unsuccessfully, we have often done interviews with journalists only to find they have been cut by producers for being too politically contentious, which may well be related to McDonalds financial power.
Stickers have been very effective. Graffiti was brilliant; it often became a massive talking point. And last but by no means least, word of mouth- there is no substitute for people talking to their workmates on the shop floor.
Will you say for us what organisations have been you friends?
We were lucky to have great solidarity from some organisations in the libertarian movement. I wont try to name them all but the revolutionary syndicalist IWW, anarcho-syndicalists like the FAU in Germany, alternative unions like CUB in Italy and other grassroots campaigns and activist groups. We have had interesting contacts with reformist trade unions in Canada, as well as the CGIL in Italy and the FNV in the Netherlands. Generally, leftist parties all over the world have completely ignored us and refused to admit we exist. Although the difficulties of language left us with huge communication problems, I might suggest that politically our closest allies were the ‘apolitical' Russian McWorkers organisation ‘Hooligans'.
Yes since when you started there are now other organisations like you, how are you with them?
Hmmm. There are some that we always got on well with and tried to help anyway we could, like Workers Resistance Against McDonalds and McDonalds International Liberation Front. There are others that are dominated by people who do not work for McDonalds and are hostile to us for the silliest reasons- like calling us arseholes because our stickers are black and white!? Or saying we cancelled October 16 th this year just because we accepted a democratic decision that we would concentrate on our pay campaign and not call for actions on that day. There are certain people who have at times seemed to be deliberately destructive even though we once worked together happily. But it was always best not to worry too much about what other people were doing and to concentrate on our own organising. Then there is McDoof; it is slick and popular but they are doing something very different from us- they are talking about which type of cheese is best when we are talking about justice. It is nice that people can go and talk about cheese if they want, but it maybe serves to pacify workers and distract them from what we think are the real issues. But we have always tried to be friendly, encouraging and supportive to other organisations, even when a couple of them have sometimes been a bit jealous!
Are you now thinking that you would have had even better successes if you had have been more like trade unions, or would you do things all the same way if it was again?
At this time, McDonalds would never allow a restaurant in the UK to be unionised. So if we had have insisted on doing things the trade union way then we would not have been more successful. If it came to it McDonalds would have closed the store rather than have recognised a union. But if we imagine a hypothetical situation where we successfully unionised a restaurant, would we have had more success? Our material conditions would probably have improved very slightly, but we would not have learned all the understanding and knowledge we gained through being directly involved in this struggle. I could not give that up for a twenty pence wage increase. I know it sounds very vague, but our internal successes mean so much to me. And it is not fair to compare the hypothetical victory of the trade unions with the real experience of MWR because the hypothetical victory of MWR is beautiful!
In fact, speaking personally, if I could do things again I would change very little for the first four years. It is the attempt to move in the direction of a federated, membership based organisation that I regret- which is not to say that in another situation that might not be the right thing to do.
Do you have for us an epitaph that you would like for the MWR during your time?
MWR Midlands once said “we don't take shit, we make it” and that sums us up quite well. Bouncer would say “everything we did was a farce” and that's also true- it's been a lot of work but great fun. But I think it's a bit premature to start thinking up epitaphs, I think there's more to come from MWR.
I also think that MWR, small though it has always been, has to be looked at seriously as one approach to dealing with the problems of workers rights in a globalised, casualised economy. I would like to think that in what we have done (and what I think McDonalds workers will continue to do) there are some ideas or tactics, or something that is of use to somebody else trying to organise.
There will be a new wave of workplace resistance, because so long as workers are exploited- from the building of the pyramids, through peasant revolts, industrial unionism, to MWR- there will always be working class resistance. I hope it will be founded on direct action, internationalism, confrontation and above all else- imagination.