Workers in Crayford and Cambridge are fighting for improved pay and working conditions.
All photos by Chris Bethell
This morning, staff at the McDonald's in Crayford, South-East London, organised the first strike the chain has faced since it opened in the UK in 1974. The vote in favour of industrial action is in response to low-wages, working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts. The action – also taking place in Cambridge – is in association with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, and has won public support from Jeremy Corbyn. With the first walk-out just after midnight, the strike has been in progress all day. VICE was on the scene at first light to meet with the strikers and find out what they were standing for and against.
It started because we had a new business manager who was bullying and harassing us, and was allowed to get away with it. I can't tell you how many workers I saw running off the floor crying within the first two weeks of him being here. There was a worker who was homeless, and she had suffered domestic abuse in the past. The way the manager was acting was triggering to her. I had a conversation with her and she was just giving up. A lot of people were just giving up. We decided that standing up to him alone wasn't going to work, so we came together.
We realised that even if we resolved the issue with the manager, we needed conditions. We needed better pay so we can live, and we also need to end zero-hour contracts, because workers need to have the promise of money coming in every week.
We met with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). It wasn't easy when we started, there were only two of us, and at first people were scared. They didn't really know what a union was. It took a lot of time to get them to trust in the union. Gareth, the organiser, was here every week to talk to people. The Americans from Fight for $15 came to talk to us, they helped us plan how we were going to do it.
There was a massive explosion in activity when the general election was called and Jeremy Corbyn started to get going. We jumped from 6 members to 20 in the week after the election.
We have a 30 year old worker in here who had never voted in her life, and for the first time ever she voted in a general election for Jeremy Corbyn. There was a lot of faith in this store, between workers, that he would get into power. I think they felt more able to join the union, because there would be someone in government who would protect their rights.
After that explosion, we started to talk about strike action. We were left with no other option by that point. But McDonald's started to fight back. In both stores where the strikes are happening, we've had Head Office in every day for the past two weeks. They've been bringing workers in from a different store and training them up on our systems; they've had workers replace us today. We had a manager in Cambridge telling workers that if they went on strike they'd be arrested. We had Head Office literally walk up to people and say "are you in the union?" It's intimidation and it's not fair, and we did lose a lot of confident people. But we gained a lot of people who were getting annoyed, and being like "how dare they do this to us?"
Every single person who is here today had a reason not to come; they had a reason to be scared. But they chose to come here, they chose not to be scared. They decided to stand up to this company that previously in this country had gone unchallenged. There are people working in these stores who are living out of boxes: couch surfing because they can't afford to live. These are real people, with real stories, and they're starting to fight back.
Last night, I finished work at midnight so I was officially the first British McDonald's striker. There was about 15 to 20 people waiting for me. They were lined up and they all started cheering and they presented me with my t-shirt, and I buried my head into it because I was very overwhelmed. I wasn't expecting that many people. But it was a good feeling, to know that we were at the start of something.
I moved to Crayford ten years ago from New Cross in South London. It was a typical council house, my mum's a probation officer and my dad does every job he can - he's a bus driver, he's a courier. I'm one of six.
I started working for McDonald's in December and I joined the union in early June because they helped me a lot with my grievance. When the £10 per hour issue came up, I was all for it. On my own I thought I couldn't ask for that, but when we started coming together, I thought maybe we could do it. And that's how we all ended up here.
I've never taken any action before. To be honest, politics is not my strong point. I've never had any familiarity with unions before, usually when I have a problem with work I just try and get a new job. It's crazy, I can't believe I'm here. This is going to do down in history.
I'm hoping that this will show my colleagues that they've got nothing to worry about by going on strike. A lot of people in store are not really convinced we'll get anywhere with this, and that's why they've stayed out of it. They don't believe that strength in numbers will work. But of course it does. If 95 percent of us went on strike tomorrow, McDonald's would have to do something.
Nick Allen, Organiser with Fight for $15
I live in Detroit and I've been in London for 48 hours. The movement is incredibly exciting, it's continuing to grow, and it's global.
In 2012, an incredibly brave small group of fast food workers went on strike in New York City for a wage of $15 an hour. It doesn't normally happen in the US that non-union workers walk out on strike, especially not fast food workers. It captured the attention of the country and very quickly spread across the country and workers rallied to it, and within a year it was a movement. It's a simple demand and everyone saw that it was completely unacceptable that workers who work full time cannot survive on the money fast food workers are being paid. $7.25 is still the federal minimum wage, and workers are living in poverty.
Since 2013, we've been part of a global attempt to create an alliance of fast food workers across the world. We've been building a network of unions of fast food workers around the world. We've been working with BFAWU in the UK, after they launched their fast food workers campaign. They've come to New York for rallies, we come here. This is a strike in two countries; it's a very conscious and deliberate global coordination.
There are incredible bonds between the workers. When you get fast food workers together from vastly different countries and cultures they have an immediate connection. One of the things about multinational corporations across the world is that they're very similar, so the experience of the workers is very similar. And one thing I'm always incredibly moved by is that even if workers don't speak the same language, they show each other their forearms, which are invariably marked by the burns of the grills. They all have the burns, and that's an immediate connection.
In the US, McDonald's is yet to recognise the union, or negotiate. So we're winning $15 in the sense that these companies are obliged to pay the wage by law, but we are yet to win the union as they haven't sat down and negotiated with us. So that is yet to come and we have to keep fighting for that.
We're on track to double the wages of, we estimate, 11 million workers across the economy, and certainly tens of thousands of fast food workers. I think the message US fast food workers would have for British McDonald's workers is that if you fight, you can win and together we can actually do this.
My mum passed away on 3rd January. It was very unexpected. Over Christmas, her lungs just gave up. I had two months off. My manager kept telling me to come into work and I said no, because I was with her day and night. When she left, there was nothing. I was home on my own. But my manager just didn't respond. It made me feel worthless. I've worked for McDonald's for three years, and when my mum passed away they disowned me.
My experience of McDonald's has been crap. There's no respect, no nothing. You're just one of their slave workers. At the moment I'm on £7.25. I pay my rent and then I have no money to get to work, so I have to get my partner to pay for me. If I can't afford it, I have to walk for an hour to work – sometimes I leave the house at 5am. So £10 an hour would help me.
Since we've joined a union, our managers have gone very distant. They've cut my hours, I used to work 8 hours but now I work 5. They tell us not to join a union; they say we won't get our £10 an hour. I've asked some people why they haven't joined in and they say management have twisted their arm. There's fear. But I think it's great to join a union and help everyone, not just the strikers. We just have to stick together and we'll get there.
VICE has reached out to McDonald's for comment.