As this is being written on August 29th, there are reports that fast-food workers are staging walkouts and protests in some 60 cities. Many of the actions are directed at McDonald’s, which makes sense, given that it is the largest and best-known player in the industry.
Yet what makes a focus on McDonald’s even more appropriate is the company’s history. More than any other restaurant operator, it has worked to suppress pay rates, enforce harsh work procedures and prevent unionization. In other words, it epitomizes everything that the current strikes are trying to change. The following is an overview of that disgraceful history.
From its earliest days in the late 1950s, McDonald’s went to great lengths to maintain total control of its underpaid work force, using techniques such as lie detector tests and rap sessions that supposedly were meant to give workers a chance to air grievances but were mainly designed to give managers a sense of who the troublemakers were.
This non-union philosophy did not go unchallenged. When McDonald’s sought to open its first stores in San Francisco in the early 1970s, the company was confronted by unions and local politicians who opposed city approval because of the labor policies of the company. It took a long court battle before McDonald’s prevailed. In the late 1970s the fast-food chains faced an intensive campaign in Detroit by an independent group called the Fastfood Workers’ Union.
In 1990 a group called the Campaign for Fair Wages staged protests at McDonald’s outlets in the Philadelphia area to protest the fact that workers at inner-city locations were being paid less than those in the suburbs. In 1998 a group of workers at a McDonald’s outlet in Macedonia, Ohio went on strike and sought representation by the Teamsters union, but the effort fizzled out.
Apart from resisting unions, McDonald’s long lobbied in the United States for a lower minimum wage for teenagers, who made up the large majority of the company’s labor force. When the Nixon Administration came out in support of the idea, Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey charged that it was a quid pro quo for a $255,000 campaign contribution that McDonald’s chairman Ray Kroc had made to Nixon’s re-election campaign. After years of debate, the “teenwage” concept was finally adopted by Congress when the minimum wage was revised in 1989 (the two-tier system expired in 1993).
Unions have been a bit more evident among McDonald’s operations in other countries. In Ireland, Sweden and a few other countries, unions were successful in negotiating working conditions, but the company and its franchisees still sought to keep unions out wherever possible. This policy became a target of a militant labor campaign when the company opened its first outlet in Mexico in 1985. The restaurant workers union laid siege to the facility and forced it to shut down until a successful representation election was held.
Unions in Denmark launched a boycott of the company in 1988 after franchisees refused to sign a collective bargaining contract. After about eight months the company relented and agreed to join the employers’ group that negotiated with the Danish hotel and restaurant union. In the 1990s McDonald’s resisted union drive in countries such as Canada, Russia and Indonesia. Like Wal-Mart, it later agreed to cooperate with state-controlled unions in China.
McDonald’s has also faced pressures about working conditions in its supply chain. In 2000 the company was rocked by reports that a Chinese sweatshop employing under-aged workers forced to toil up to 16 hours a day was producing toys for its Happy Meals. McDonald’s and its U.S. supplier announced that they were cutting ties with the Chinese subcontractor involved. In 2005 thousands of Vietnamese workers who produced Happy Meal toys staged a two-day strike to protest abusive conditions on the job, and the following year a violent protest occurred at a Happy Meal toy supplier in China.
Actions such as these prompted McDonald’s to join with Walt Disney and a group of NGOs in what was called Project Kaleidoscope to promote better working conditions in the Chinese plants producing goods linked to the two companies. A 2008 report by the initiative spelled out some broad principles and claimed that a group of 10 target facilities had succeeded in improving working conditions.
Back in the United States, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which had just successfully pressured the Taco Bell chain to take responsibility for ensuring that farmworkers who picked the tomatoes used in its outlets were treated decently by suppliers, issued a call in 2005 for McDonald’s to do the same. After two years of campaign pressure, McDonald’s gave in and signed a three-way agreement with the Coalition and the growers under which the restaurant chain agreed to pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes to boost farmworker pay.
McDonald’s response to the farmworker campaign shows that, when put under enough pressure, it will make concessions. Let’s hope that the strikers can raise the heat to that level.
Note: This post is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on McDonald’s, which can be found here.