Dan Gallin is the General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied
Workers Associations (IUF). He works out of the Unions headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland
IUF is a world-wide federation, found in 1920, of trade unions in 90 countries representing workers employed in the
manufacture, preperation and serving of food, in hotels and in tobacco. The IUF Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The affiliated unions determine all IUF policy and elect office holders.
What is a McJob?
A McJob is what we call a low skill, low pay, high stress, exhausting and unstable job. We call them McJobs because they are typical conditions in many McDonald's worldwide.
Helen and Dave are arguing that McDonald's pays its workers badly. What's the pay like at McDonald's?
I think they are right.I don't see how you could qualify McDonald's pay by any other term.
As a firm they keep to the legal minimum - which is very low.
In addition to that they have been lobbying to change the law
for example to create a special, lower minimum wage for young
workers, which represent a two-thirds majority of their employees.
In the US they have lobbied for the introduction of this lower
minimum for young workers. The pay is about as low as it can get.
It's a very important company. they employ about 212, 000
people directly and through their franchises probably close to
a million and a half. The direct labour force is in the same
league as Nestle, General Electric or Volkswagen, for example.
It's a major worldwide company, which puts them in a key position
in shaping the nature of the fast food industry.
What is McDonald's position on unions and unionisation?
They are ideologically hostile to unions. They regard unions as third parties and they deny the legitimacy of a union as an expression of the interests of the employees that they're dealing with. They have accepted unions, and collective bargaining, if the alternative was to close altogether or suffer major public relations damage. But even when they have allowed a union, they've then tried to chip away at union recognitions.
To cite examples, in France in 1994 10 managers were arrested by the French authorities for infringing legal legislation and trade union rights. In Germany they recognised a Works Council, as they are obliged to do in law, and then they bought off 46 of them. Representatives were offering them between 5,000 and 100,000 DM, which is a considerable amount for a young person. So, one always has the sense that even if union recognition is secured, it is a temporary situation subject to change at any time from the management.
Why do you think McDonald's are so against unions?
Unions mean expense. McDonald's is totally profit oriented
- that's all they aim for. They don't believe that the company has any other purpose except to make the maximum amount of
One of the main problems that all the floor workers in McDonald's share is extremely low pay. Er, McDonald's will always stick to the minimum wage possible - sometimes even illegally - in Norway they were caught employing 18-year old workers which is illegal. Whenever the union comes in and obtains a contract, pay goes up. The first thing that happens after unionisation is a pay raise, which obviously cuts into McDonald's profits.
Well, the other reason that they don't want unions is due to working conditions. McDonald's have this "hustle" policy, which consists of constant, hard work all the time with no let up at all. If an employee doesn't do one thing they will be made to do something else. There is basically no rest period - totally inhuman conditions. A union's rules usually impose a certain limit of hours worked continuously. That also interferes with McDonald's philosophy, which involves exploiting their workers to the maximum.
Unions are important in any workplace for the simple reason that they are the only guarantee for the rule of law in the workplace. McDonald's does not accept the rule of any law except their own - a totally arbitrary situation. But they don't accept treatment of employees on the basis of transparent standards negotiated with a third party. At workplaces like McDonald's unions are particularly important because of the vulnerable nature of the labour force. McDonald's workforce are mostly young people, average age 21, generally unskilled, easily replaceable, housewives, recent immigrants or refugees. In Switzerland, 35% of the workforce are refugees on temporary residence waiting for permission to stay in the country permanently. It's much the same worldwide.
Sid Nicholson agreed with the statement that "No overt union activity will be tolerated on McDonald's premises". What's your view on that?
That reflects accurately McDonald's ideology and position. More and more frequently they have had to recognise the union - they have to allow union activity by local law. Again, they do so reluctantly, and always with a sense that they have never really recognised the legitimacy of the union. They regard it as an evil that they have to live with, but not really accept. In Germany where they've recognised the union nationally, there's still management-approved harassment, whenever they have meetings or parties. When the union appears in official capacity they harass and try to interfere with the distribution of union material and similar information.
Wherever a union has been recognised by McDonald's it was as a consequence of a dispute which the union won. In the case of Denmark, it was a real test of wills.
McDonald's said there was no way in which they were going to sign a contract. Upon which, 11 Danish unions got together, prepared their approach for about a year and then put to McDonalds that they were going to shut them down if they did not recognise the union. McDonalds did not recognise the union, so the unions duly shut it down - for about a month to 6 weeks. The result was that McDs had to accept joining the employers association. They have refused to do this in most cases because it does put restrictions on them which they don't want to accept - in this case a collective bargaining agreement which had immediate consequences of giving the workers a 7% raise, among other things.
The only countries that have had McDonald's unionized from the start are Finland and Sweden. Everywhere else, there has been a fight. In places like France, Germany and Norway, McDonald's are now required to allow union activity. McDonald's usual reaction, as mentioned earlier, is to try and buy off union stewards.
Is this truly a worldwide effort to unionize? Is this going on everywhere?
There are few countries where are at one time or another McD's workers have not tried to organise. There are very few where they have succeeded on a stable and ongoing basis.
I think another typical example is McDonald's attempts to circumvent theEuropean Works Council Directive. The EU has issued legislation, that companies of a certain size operating in more than one country in Europe have to accept a European Works Council, which is based on the representation of their employers. So McDonald's called together something called the European Communications group - a body of hand picked representatives. It's a totally fake operation designed to circumvent the Directive. The Austrian union denounced the operation on behalf of the IUF, The result of this was that they recognised the Austrian union in Austria but they did not establish a bona fide Works Council.
Are McDonald's worse than anyone else with respect to unions? How do they compare to similar organisations?
In the fast food industry they are the worst in the sense that the wages are generally lowerthan the rest of the industry. Admittedly, in the fast food industry, unionisation is difficult everywhere - but McDonald's has pioneered a concept of extreme exploitation of the workforce and of keeping the union out.
I think it's worse than the others because they've systemised it and they've refined it to the level of a system which they impose everywhere. I can't think of any other company does that. To some degree other fast food companies have followed their lead but again they're not as singleminded and consistent in exploiting their workers.
They have an infrastructure devoted to their ideology, a hamburger university where they teach staff to do things the McDonald's way. Burger King is not nearly as resistant to union organisation and have recognised the union in several places. If McDonald's had a more humane and normal policy of dealing with its employees I think the whole atmosphere in the fast food industry could change.
I think it is a bad thing that McDonald's should go anywhere using their current employment practices. What we need is a change in the corporate philosophy in McDonald's. As it is now the fast food industry is a jungle and McD's contributes to keeping it that way. It is imaginable that with a different corporate philosophy McD's could be a positive influence - if they were a socially responsible company it would make a tremendous and positive difference in the food industry.
McDonald's claim in their leaflets that they provide a safe working environment for their staff. Would you agree?
I don't think they have. Its a disingenuous claim as it's not really one of their concerns. As an example we have the Mark Hopkins case in Manchester. He was electrocuted in 1992 and it was clear from the investigation of the Manchester Environmental health dept that McDonald's would never have corrected the problem left to their own devices. Safety is not their main concern. Neither is health - the hustle policy of working people to the bone all the time without a pause cannot possibly be described as a healthy working environment. This is quite apart from the very nature of the work - simple, repetitive, monotonous actions in a stressful atmosphere. It's not a safe or enjoyable working environment.
Perhaps you could sum up the experience of working at McDonald's?
Overall, it is a terrible working environment.
Do you think that it is right that pure desire for profit determines how the workers are treated?
Yes and no. We believe that companies should be profitable, but that profit should not be their only consideration.
In the case of McDonald's, profit seems to be the overriding consideration. We feel that there are essentials being ignored. The quality of a product is essential, especially as sensitive and basic a product as food. Respect for the consumer, the worker and the environment are also essential, if a company is to call itself "responsible". We believe that a company is ultimately accountable to society for its actions and McDonald's does not act like a responsible corporate citizen at world level.
It is a socially irresponsible company.
How is McDonald's able to get away with such low pay and terrible conditions?
Since the 1970 there has been terrible unemployment, growing and permanent unemployment because jobs are ever harder to find. Young people are also attracted to what appears to be at first sight an easy job. When, eventually, they find out it isn't an easy job, they leave. This suits McDonald's, as they operate on the basis of a very high turnover of the workforce - I believe the annual turnover rate is 300% in the USA. They keep recruiting people who have no other possibilities or access to other jobs or the inexperienced on the job market, they use them and then throw them away.
What can be done about this? What can McDonald's do?
If they ploughed some of their enormous profits back
into ensuring the safer healthy environment they pay so much lip service to and implemented plans for decent working conditions and decent pay it would make an enormous difference. Not just to their employees, but to standards in the entire fast food industry and to the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people. At the moment it's not happening.
Yes. Unions. We're working on it. We think that would bring about the changes necessary in the working conditions at McDonald's.
So why did you agree to act on behalf of Helen and Dave?
We entirely support Helen and Dave because what they've actually done is hold McDonald's accountable to society on behalf of our society. I think they're heroes of our time. Of course we support them.
I'm a trade unionist and trade unions are about human dignity. The basic motivation and the reason for existence of unions is the defence of human dignity. In this instance I believe that Helen and Dave have been doing that They have been holding McD's accountable to society which is exactly what we are trying to do as well. So we have the same concerns and we would of course support them. We think they're heroes of our time.