“Go to the meat market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long row of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?” -- Hermann Meville, Moby Dick
I. McDonald's depends on keeping people hungry: its workers and its customers.
A few years ago, a McDonald's franchise was taken to an industrial tribunal, having fired an employee for 'giving away food'. What she had done was put extra chocolate topping on a fellow employee's McFlurry. This can be put down, in part, to capricious management, puffed up by its own power in the workplace. But it is a capricious application of an actual McDonald's policy. They take food theft seriously, and employees can be fired for it. To discourage any appropriation or giving away of leftover food, they pay their workers partly in 'free' meals.
McDonald's wastes a lot of food. It claims on its website that its efficiency practices mean 'only' one percent of edible food is wasted. This is likely to be a gross underestimate. Investigations in France find a huge amount of organic waste at McDonald's restaurants, and a great deal hangs on what is classified as 'edible food'. But even taking this claim at face value, one percent of what McDonald's produces every day is a huge amount of food. Just to put this in perspective, Americans alone consume 500 tons of beef, or five and a half million cows, in McDonald's every year. One percent of that is five tons. And that's just the United States, and that's just the beef.
There is no point in demonising McDonald's for this. Between one third and one half of food produced globally is wasted. This isn't just a question of potatoes and leeks rotting while poor people go hungry, although there is that. Food production is a huge investment of energy, crossing -- as Jason Moore would insist -- the Cartesian divide between humans and nature. The circuit of capitalist production brings to bear all kinds of labour, and all kinds of energy -- human, solar, worm, insect, and so on -- to bring products to market.
The waste of this energy is just one aspect of capital's externalisation and invisibilisation of costs. If capital is, as Jonathan Beller argues, a screen, it is one that screens out most of the actual costs of the process. And it obscures the fact that capitalism, far from being the most efficient system of production in history, is the most wasteful. This is because the system is geared toward, not human consumption, but capital's consumption. The stuff that is thrown away is just, from that point of view, the waste product after the extraction and digestion of value: it is the clown's shit.
McDonald's only contributes a tiny share of this total waste. But the way that McDonald's works, the way the food industry works, depends on this waste, because it is about maintaining food scarcity. It is about their production costs, prices and profit margins. It it is about organised hunger.
II. The other side of this, of course, is the cost of labour. Cheap food depends upon cheap labour and cheap nature. But, of course, neither input really exists. All that happens is that some of the costs are externalised.
The average wage of a McDonald's crew member in Britain is £5.69 per hour, because many of its workers are excluded from the adult minimum wage of £6.50 per hour. Tyrone, a 17 year old McDonald's worker interviewed at the TUC conference, receives £4.75 an hour. There is simply no way to feed, house and clothe yourself with this sort of income in the UK.
Cheap labour can thus go hungry, lose weight, its body consumed and cannibalised by capital. But it must, if it is to reproduce itself in the long-term, either borrow against future wages, access a minute trickle of a social wage, or get help from friends or parents. Which means that McDonald's not only consumes the surplus labour of the employee, but also the surplus labour of many other workers. But it isn't just a matter of immediate profit margins. There is another interest in keeping workers hungry and lean. They cannot save up, they cannot feel a moment's security, they become debt-ridden and desperate. The whip of the market drives obedience.
That partly explains another characteristic of cheap labour. Cheap nature goes on strike by means of ecological collapse, species-death, and a catastrophic pile-up of consequences for future generations. Cheap labour almost never goes on strike. Let me reiterate that point: cheap labour almost never goes on strike.
Most of the time, class struggle is not expressed through direct industrial conflict, but is mediated through bargaining, law, political action, media strategies, representation and various passive tactics used by workers to resist exploitation (lateness, sickies, vandalism, etc). Strike action for most of the time is a potential, a submerged threat, the underlying possibility. As Wolfgang Streeck argues, all work takes place conditionally: both capital and labour has to at least tacitly agree to cooperate, to not withdraw either investment or work. Most of the time, that tacit compromise over the conditions of exploitation is respected. Where industrial action does emerge, it is rare that it generalises.
The graph at the top of this page shows days lost to industrial action in the UK since roughly 1890 (circa the birth of the New Unionism) to the present. I don't know that such statistics are collected in the UK, but if you were to chart days lost relative to total days worked, the contrasts would be even more stark. Outside of the heroic periods of near-insurrectionary class conflict, class struggle barely registers as a blip. Its disruption to the flow of profit is negligible.
And that has never been more the case than it is now. Last year, 154,000 workers in the UK were involved in industrial action, a record low. The total number of days lost to industrial action slightly increased on the previous year, thanks to RMT action in Southern Rail, but fewer and fewer workers actually strike. Everyone knows why. Union membership is falling everywhere. Most private sector workplaces have never seen a union rep. Anti-union laws make it difficult to strike, and ensure a significant lag between threat and action. There hasn't been a lot of political support for industrial action, and union leaders have not usually been willing to risk what political traction they have with major strikes.
The situation with cheap labour is far worse. Those workers who do strike tend to be slightly more secure, slightly better paid, and have a little bit more power. Cheap labour is precarious, unorganised and culturally looked down upon. The typical subjective responses to this situation do not favour organisation. Many treat the job as temporary, aspiring to get out of there as soon as possible. A typical situation among service employees is that they are preparing to become actors or musicians or go back to University. The job does not, and cannot, define them if they are not to become abject. Others internalise the defeat and abject pointlessness that goes with being trapped in such work, and develop a melancholic subjectivity characterised by self-reproach, self-destruction and self-medication. They become, in themselves, part of the metabolised waste-product of capitalism. They become the clown's shit.
III. This is the context in which we have to understand McStrike. Perhaps it should be astonishing that McDonald's has never faced industrial action in Britain since opening its first branch in 1974. Wages and conditions have always been poor. Injuries on the job, especially from fat burns, are not new.
But it is not astonishing. McDonald's has benefited from a balance of power established over the forty three years or so that it has been operating in the UK. That balance has been achieved through major set-piece battles, such as with the miners and printworkers. But it has also been achieved through changes to employment law, welfare, the organisation of the state, not to mention a series of cultural battles waged at first by the Right to inculpate much of the working class as feckless, idle, criminal and irresponsible. McDonald's get to extract a surplus of surplus-labour in large part because of that. So that the real surprise is that a group of workers in McDonald's, taking the cue from certain people they know, are organising to make the McDonald's remunerate more of the cost of their labour.
Political leadership matters, particularly for the poorest, least organised, and most precarious workers. Even something as simple as banning McDonald's from Labour's annual conference, as the NEC voted to do last year, matters. Of course, entirely predictable, the punditry responded to that decision with fully saturated contempt. It was virtue-signalling, snobbery, elitism. Labour backbenchers like Wes Streeting scolded that it "might not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at but it’s enjoyed by families across the country."
By contrast, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, which is behind these latest strikes, and has been organising for a £10 minimum wage and against zero-hours contracts, welcomed it. For them, it was a sign that pressure on McDonald's could work, that their supposed political representatives were taking their side, not that of their employers. For them, it was confidence-giving. The distinction between matey pseudo-populism, and authentic class politics, could hardly be clearer. Streeting and his confederates were faking it.
The fact that Labour's leadership is both adamantly pro-union and pro-strike, that it has an explicit strategic orientation toward grassroots, working class organisation, would be a difference-maker in any situation. The political breakthroughs of Corbynism, first winning the Labour leadership, then coming close to winning the election, has given that backing real power.
Now, every time Corbyn and McDonnell confidently defend a left-wing, pro-union position, every time they say Labour support for a 'general strike' is not off the agenda, they give confidence to trade unionist. Len McCluskey would not be talking about potentially breaking the law were it not for this situation. Momentum has also put itself at the service of organising fast food workers. Its viral campaign video supporting McDonald's workers has now been seen by a quarter of all McDonald's employees. Labour's supporters in the media, like Owen Jones, and more detached Corbynistas like 'chunkymark', have also been doing their bit to exploit the affordances of platform capitalism in order to megaphone the interests of fast food workers.
All of this matters. If McDonald's workers had to rely on their current industrial power, they wouldn't get anywhere. Not because those striking are a militant minority; only militant minorities ever achieve anything. But because they need to build the self-confidence of McDonald's workers before most of them will even risk joining in. They are thus engaged in a political campaign, a rolling campaign of protests, media actions and strikes. Throwing the weight of Corbyn's Labour behind this campaign gives it the gravity of being part of a movement: the first, tentative steps toward a new forward march of labour.
Class struggle can never be reduced to the scene of the workplace -- the so-called "point of production". It always depends on politics, and representation. Historically, Labour has worked on the basis of a division between 'economic' and 'political' action. Unions would look out for the economic interests of workers, and the Labour leadership would take care of political matters through parliament. That division is why Labour leaders tend not to support strikes, and even become their bitterest opponents once in office.
However, exactly that division of Labour is what has been breaking down since the Blair era. The very hostility of New Labour to the trade unions, and its insistence on pro-market 'reforms', forced the unions to conceive of themselves as political actors. That culminated in their backing of Corbyn for Labour leader. Prior to the election, when things still looked bleak, I described as being, in part, to:
"break through the suffocating melancholic affects of internalised defeat, channel this deflected anger appropriately and enable disenfranchised people to experience their own potential collective power through a democratised Labour Party."
The strikes among the most precarious and youngest workers, from Deliveroo to McDonald's, are part of the same incipient class consciousness among young people that has led to the breakthroughs for Corbynism. And the political organisation of workers, through a transformed Labour Party, is about constituting them as something more than clown-shit. It is about constituting them as an historical subject. An agency, with an explicit, politicised sense of its situation. Slowly, and gradually, this is what is happening.