Big Mac Versus the Little People

McDonald's is 40 today - and protesters plan to ruin the birthday party. But why this company?

The Guardian, April 15, 1995 Jim Carey

FORTY years ago today, a former milkshake-mixer salesman named Ray A Kroc opened a burger bar near Chicago. The stand was not the first to welcome drivers with its trademark golden arches: Richard and Maurice McDonald had opened their first burger drive-in in California in 1948. But Kroc suspected the brothers' business could be rationalised and turned into an international success.

And so was born the McDonald's Corporation, later to become the world's largest fast-food giant, even developing its own Hamburger University offering degrees in Hamburgerology. Today it has around 14,000 outlets in 70 countries. Yet the corporate march has often been accompanied by a resentment, which campaigners aim to reflect today in a global "day of action" against the Big Mac. Crystallising the battle against what some term as "cultural imperialism on a massive scale" is a High Court case. McDonald's is suing two unwaged environmental activists for their involvement in the distribution of a leaflet critical of the corporation's environmental, employment, nutritional and advertising record.

So why has McDonald's, rather than other internationally known western brand names, become the object of such public vehemence? "We obviously think there is no foundation in the things that are being said," says Mike Love, head of communications at McDonald's UK. "We can't predict why anybody would do anything to protest against McDonald's. You would have to ask them."

Dan Mills has one answer: "The very fact that McDonald's are trying to stop people putting an alternative view means that more people want to put that alternative view."

Mills is co-ordinator of a campaign against McDonald's efforts to use the courts to fight those producing critical literature. "McDonald's take very much a 'holier than thou' approach," he claims, "and their propaganda and promotion seems to be sweeping across the world. Because of that approach there is an equal and opposite reaction." The so-called McLibel Support Campaign operates from a small office in central London that doubles up as Mills's bedroom. He worked as a lawyer in the New York branch of a British solicitors' firm, but returned last year, determined to "get away from being a corporate lawyer", and volunteered to help fight the unchecked march of McDonald's.

"We get a fantastic response from right across the country and internationally," he says. "One reason is because the campaign covers so many issues. We're getting support from trade unionists, environmental groups, animal-rights campaigners - as well as from middle-class people who might have a drive-through proposed down the road."

There are now 600 McDonald's stores in the UK, and a new outlet opens every week. According to Dan Mills, "there are objections to virtually every store that opens". Mike Love, meanwhile, says that vehement local objections are "very few".

The company spent 10 years successfully overcoming much local opposition to an outlet in Hampstead, north London. Just down the road in King's Cross, another outlet is due to be built in what was the local Post Office. Once again local opposition has been strong, with a 1,330-name petition, also signed by two local MPs. The initial planning application for the King's Cross burger bar was rejected - but after the company promised football shirts for local youth clubs and coffee mornings for older people, the council reversed its decision.

"Bribes to the community" is how Harvey Bass, vice-chair of the King's Cross Neighbourhood Association, describes it. "People can do a sizeable petition and a campaign, but at the end of the day it's totally out of their hands, even if they've got good reason."

According to Mike Love, McDonald's efforts to get local-authority approval for the King's Cross outlet "went very smoothly indeed". "We take the views of local people in any locality very seriously indeed," he says. "That is why we would listen to local residents. We weren't aware that there has been a lot of opposition to the King's Cross application."

As well as the neighbourhood association, Harvey Bass also chairs the King's Cross Partnership, a meeting of local residents, police, health workers and businesses. "I was annoyed that McDonald's never came to the meeting to state their case," he says. "All they did was go to council officers. They don't deal with the people. And in the end, multinationals get what they want, don't they?"

Multinationals also attract international opposition. Keith Ashdown, a worker with the Cancer Prevention Coalition in the United States, is helping to co-ordinate today's anti-birthday protest outside the original McDonald's in Illinois. In April last year, he also helped co-ordinate a mass protest outside 3,000 McDonald's outlets in the US, Canada and Mexico. A quarter of all the outlets in north America were covered by the action.

"There was such a wide range of people, from 75-year-old grandmas to seven-year -old kids," Ashdown recalls. "It was one of the biggest grass-roots campaigns America has ever seen - but we didn't get any national coverage." "The PR machine is so huge that they were able to squash a lot of the information and education we were trying to promote."

McDonald's spends $ 1.4 billion (£900 million) - six per cent of sales - on advertising and promotion, particularly directed at children. It sued the Scottish TUC for making statements critical of McDonald's employment record; it threatened the Bournemouth Advertiser and the Vegetarian Society after they quoted criticisms of McDonald's nutritional and animal-rights record. In Austria, McDonald's is also suing animal-rights protesters for public criticisms.

Last year in Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, McDonald's successfully forced a small cafe, known for 17 years as McCoffee, to change its name. "This is the moment I surrendered the little 'c' to corporate America," lamented Elizabeth McCaughey, who, as owner of the coffee shop, had titled it as an adaptation of her surname. "It stinks, but the little guy just doesn't have the money to fight it," added cafe regular Shirley Brey.

The company certainly has resources. The lawyer representing McDonald's in the " McLibel" trial is Richard Rampton, a top libel QC whose daily fee is estimated to be at least £2,000. "The fact that they would go to court to stop the distribution of a leaflet which really wasn't going to make great inroads into their business shows what they are about," says Dan Mills. "As they try and stamp out that sort of criticism, it provokes a reaction from people."

"Their main success is in the totally fanatical promotion of themselves," says Dave Morris, one of the co-defendants in the trial. "We consider it our public duty to criticise such powerful institutions."

According to Donna Williamson, helping co-ordinate the anti-birthday protests in Brisbane, Australia: "The censorship issue is the main one over here with McDonald's taking action against people's right to speak out." Indeed, McDonald's decision to pursue libel actions does seem to have added to public resistance to its global corporate tactics. The " McLibel" trial, originally booked in for a few weeks, looks set to become one of the longest libel trials in British legal history. The company has reportedly been extremely concerned at the adverse publicity. Protesters have held international days of action against McDonald's every October for the past 10 years; but there has been nothing like " McLibel" , they say, to galvanise world-wide protest.

"It's the perfect David-and-Goliath battle," says Keith Ashdown from Chicago. "Two people expressing their opinions are the subject of attempts to squash their voices. McDonald's couldn't do that in the United States: it would be a violation of constitutional rights."

"Before the McLibel trial, there was an anti-McDonald's campaign in Australia from an animal-welfare point of view, but it was written off as an underground alternative thing," says Donna Williamson. "But since people have heard of the McLibel case, there's now environmental issues, the rights of workers, censorship and health all joined up. The mainstream media are getting more of a hold on it now and the average person is becoming involved."

In several Australian cities today, protesters dressed up as Ronald McDonald clowns are carrying out a mock slaughter of protesters dressed up as cows. The protest in Chicago will entail the ritual destruction of a birthday cake outside the first McDonald's outlet. Similar protests are planned from Italy and Finland to New Zealand and Spain. There will be protests in more than 20 UK cities, and in Leicester Square, London, campaigners plan to collect up discarded McDonald's packaging and return it to the burger bar.

"People are entitled to exercise their freedom of speech and to demonstrate peacefully within the law," says Mike Love. "But we believe that those taking part should look at the facts and be aware of the truth."

"Concern for truth" is a phrase also frequently on the lips of the " McLibel" co -defendants. "It's really exhausting, and sometimes I do wish that I could have my life back, but it's important to fight back against these attempts by multinationals to silence criticism," says Helen Steel, a co-defendant.

"McDonald's has forced its way into the public consciousness and yet is trying to suppress dissenting voices and alternative views of what it really represents," adds Dave Morris. "The truth is always worth defending."

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