At the same time that the anti-Shell campaigns broke out, the McLibel Trial, in the docket for a few years already, was turning into an international situation. In June 1995 (the same month that Brent Spar erupted) McLibel was coming up to its first anniversary in court, when the two defendants, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, whom McDonald’s had sued for libel, held a press conference outside the London courthouse. They announced that McDonald’s had made a settlement offer to them. The company would donate money to a cause of Steel and Morris’s choice; the two outspoken environmentalists on trial would stop criticizing McDonald’s; and everyone would leave the whole messy nightmare behind them.
Steel and Morris defiantly refused the offer. Why should they give in now? From the perspective of a company trying to stem the flow of negative publicity, the McLibel Trial ¾ clearly designed to gag and bankrupt Steel and Morris ¾ bvvvvvvvvvhv ccccccccccccccccccccccccc had been an epic public-relations disaster. But it had done almost as much for vegetarianism as Mad Cow disease, had certainly done more to raise the issue of labour conditions in the McJob sector than any union drive, and had sparked a more profound debate about corporate censorship than any other free-speech case in recent memory.
The pamphlet at the centre of the suit was first published in 1986 by London Greenpeace, a splinter group of Greenpeace International (which the hard-core Londoners deemed too centralized and mainstream for their tastes). It was an early case study in using a single brand name to connect the dots among every topic on the social agenda: rainforest depletion (to raise the cattle), Third World poverty (forcing peasants off their farms to make way for export crops and McDonald’s livestock needs), animal cruelty (in treatment of the livestock), waste production (disposable packaging and litter), health (fried fatty foods), poor labour conditions (low wages and union-busting in the McJob sector) and exploitative advertising (in McDonald’s target marketing to children).
But the truth is, McLibel was never really about the pamphlet. In many ways, the case against McDonald’s is less compelling than the one against Nike and Shell, both of which are driven by hard evidence of large-scale human suffering. With McDonald’s the evidence was less direct and, in some ways, the issues more dated. The concern about litter-producing fast-food restaurants reached its peak in the late-eighties and London Greenpeace’s campaign against the company clearly came from the standpoint of meat-is-murder vegetarianism: a valid perspective, but one for which there is a limited political constituency. What made McLibel take off as a campaign on par with the ones targeting Nike and Shell was not what the fast-food chain did to cows, forests or even its own workers. The McLibel movement took off because of what McDonald’s did to Helen Steel and Dave Morris.
Franny Armstong, who produced a documentary about the trial, points out that Britain’s libel law was changed in 1993 "so that governmental bodies such as local councils are no longer able to sue for libel. This was to protect people’s right to criticize public bodies. Multinationals are fast becoming more powerful than governments ¾ and even less accountable ¾ so shouldn’t the same rules apply? With advertising budgets in the billions, it’s not as though they need to turn to the law to ensure their point of view is heard." In other words, for many of its supporters, Steel and Morris’s case was less about the merits of fast food than about the need to protect freedom of speech in a climate of mounting corporate control. If Brent Spar was about loss of space, and Nike was about the loss of good jobs, then McLibel was about loss of choice ¾ it was about corporate censorship.
When McDonald’s issued libel writs against five Greenpeace activists in 1990 over the contents of the now notorious leaflet, three members of the group did what most people would do when faced with the prospect of going up against an $11-billion corporation: they apologized. The company had a long and successful history with this strategy. According to the Guardian: "Over the past 15 years, McDonald’s has threatened legal action against more than 90 organizations in the U.K., including the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian, the Sun, the Scottish TUC, the New Leaf Tea Shop, student newspapers and a children’s theatre group. Even Prince Philip received a stiff letter. All of them backed down and many formally apologised in court."
But Helen Steel and Dave Morris made another choice. They used the trial to launch a seven-year experiment in riding the golden arches around the global economy. For 313 days in court ¾ the longest trial in English history ¾ an unemployed postal worker (Morris) and a community gardener (Steel) went to war with chief executives from the largest food chain in the world.
Over the course of the trial, Steel and Morris meticulously elaborated every one of the pamphlet’s claims, with the assistance of nutritional and environment experts and scientific studies. With 180 witnesses called to the stand, the company faced dozens of humiliating moments as the court heard stories of food poisoning, failure to pay legal overtime, bogus recycling claims, and corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace. In one particularly telling incident, McDonald’s executives were challenged on the company’s claim that it serves "nutritious food": David Green, senior vice-president of marketing, expressed his opinion that Coca-Cola is nutritious because it is "providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet." In another embarrassing exchange, McDonald’s executive Ed Oakley explained to Steel that the McDonald’s garbage stuffed into landfills is "a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast empty gravel pits all over the country."
On June 19, 1997 the judge finally handed down the verdict. The courtroom was packed with an odd assortment of corporate executives, pink-haired vegan anarchists and rows of journalists. It felt like an eternity to most of us sitting there, as Judge Rodger Bell read out his 45-page ruling ¾ a summary of the actual verdict which was over 1,000 pages long. Although the judge deemed most of the pamphlet’s claims too hyperbolic to be acceptable (he was particularly unconvinced by its direct linking of McDonald’s to "hunger in the ‘Third World’"), he deemed others to be based on pure fact. Among the decisions that went in Steel and Morris' favor were: that McDonald’s "exploit(s) children" by "using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising;" that its treatment of some animals has been "cruel;" that it is anti-union and pays "low wages;" that its management can be "autocratic" and "most unfair;" and that a consistent diet of McDonald's food contributes to the risk of heart disease. Steel and Morris were ordered to pay damages to McDonald’s in the amount of (U.S.) $95,490. But in March 1999, an appeals court judge found that Judge Bell had been overly harsh and sided more forcefully with Steel and Morris on the claims "concerning nutrition and health risks and on the allegations about pay and conditions for McDonald’s employees." Still finding that that claims about food poisoning, cancer and world poverty were unproven, the court nonetheless lowered the amount of damages to $61,300. McDonald’s has never tried its settlement and has decided not to apply for an injunction to halt the further dissemination of the leaflet.
After the first verdict, McDonald’s was quick to declare victory, but few were convinced. "Not since Pyrrhus has a victor emerged so bedraggled," read The Guardian’s editorial the next day. "...As P.R. fiascos go, this action takes the prize for ill-judged and disproportionate response to public criticism." In fact, while all this had been going on, the original pamphlet had gathered the cachet of a collector’s item, with 3-million copies distributed in the U.K alone. John Vidal had published his critically acclaimed book McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial; 60 Minutes had produced a lengthy segment about the trial; England’s Channel 4 had run a three-hour dramatization of it; and Franny Armstrong’s documentary, "McLibel: Two Worlds Collide" had made the rounds on the independent film circuit (having been turned down, ironically, by every major broadcaster for libel concerns).
For Helen Steel, Dave Morris and their active supporters, McLibel was never about winning in court ¾ it was about using the courts to win over the public. And judging by the crowds outside the McDonald’s outlets two days after the verdict came down, they had every the right to be declaring victory. Standing outside their neighborhood McDonald's outlet in North London on a Saturday afternoon, Steel and Morris can barely keep up with the demand for ``What's wrong with McDonald's?,'' the leaflet that started it all. Passersby are requesting copies, drivers are pulling over to get their McLibel mementos, and mothers with toddlers are stopping to tell Helen Steel how difficult it is for a busy parent when her child demands unhealthy food ¾ what can a mother do?
Across the United Kingdom, a similar scene is playing itself out. More than 500 McDonald's outlets were simultaneously picketed on June 21, 1997, along with 30 outlets in North America. As with the Nike protests, every event is different. At one British franchise, the community put on a street performance featuring an ax-wielding Ronald McDonald, a cow and lots of ketchup. At another, people passed out free vegetarian food. At all the McDonald’s restaurants, supporters handed out the infamous leaflet: 400,000 copies on that weekend alone. ``They were flying out of their hands,'' says Dan Mills of the McLibel Support Campaign, amused at the irony: before McDonald's decided to sue, London Greenpeace’s campaign was winding down and only a few hundred copies of the contentious leaflet had ever been distributed. It is now translated into 26 languages and is whipping around cyberspace.
It’s a good bet that many brand-name giants besides McDonald’s have paid close attention to the goings on in that British courtroom. In 1996, Guess dropped a libel suit against the L.A. women’s group, Common Threads, which the company had launched in response to a poetry reading about the plight of garment workers sewing Guess jeans. Similarly, though Nike consistently accuses its critics of fabrication, it has stayed away from trying to clear its name in court. And no wonder: the courtroom is the only place where private corporations are forced to pry open shuttered windows and let the public gaze shine in.
As Helen Steel and Dave Morris, write:
If companies do choose to use oppressive laws against their critics then court cases do not have to only be about legal procedures and verdicts. They can be turned into a public forum and focus for protest, and for the wider dissemination of the truth. This is what happened with McLibel... Maybe for the first time in history, a powerful institution (it just happened to be a fast-food chain, but in some ways could’ve been any financial organization or state department) was subject to lengthy, detailed and critical public scrutiny. That can only be a good thing!
The message has not been lost on Steel and Morris’ fellow activists around the world; everyone who followed McLibel saw how effective a long, dramatic trial could be at building up a body of evidence and stoking sentiment against a corporate opponent. Some campaigners are even too impatient to wait to be sued themselves and are taking their corporate opponents to court instead. For instance, in January 1999, when U.S. labour activists decided they wanted to draw attention to the ongoing sweatshop violations in the U.S. territory of Saipan, they launched an unconventional lawsuit in California court against 17 American retailers, including the Gap and Tommy Hilfiger. The suit, filed on behalf of thousands of Saipan garment workers, accuses the brand-name retailers and manufacturers of participating in a "racketeering conspiracy" in which young women from South East Asia are lured to Saipan with promises of well paying jobs in the United States. What they get instead is wage cheating and "America’s worst sweatshop," in the words of Al Meyerhoff, lead attorney on the case. A companion lawsuit further alleges that by labeling goods from Saipan "Made in the U.S.A" or "Made in the Northern Marianas, U.S.A.," the companies are engaging in false advertising, leaving customers with the impression that the manufacturers were subject to U.S. labour laws, when they were not.
Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken a similar tack with Royal Dutch/Shell, filing a federal lawsuit against the company in a New York court on the first anniversary on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death. According to the Center’s David A. Love, "The suit ¾ filed on behalf of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists who were executed by Nigeria’s military regime in November 1995 ¾ alleges that the executions were carried out with ‘the knowledge, consent, and/or support’ of Shell Oil." It further alleges that the hangings were part of a conspiracy "to violently and ruthlessly suppress any opposition to Royal Dutch/Shell’s conduct in its exploitation of oil and natural gas resources in Ogoni and in the Niger Delta." Shell denies the charges and is challenging the legitimacy of the suit. At the time of writing, neither the Saipan case not the Shell case had been settled.
If the courts are becoming a popular tool to pry open closed corporations, it is the Internet that has rapidly become the tool of choice for spreading information about multinationals around the world. All three of the campaigns described in this chapter have distinguished themselves by a pioneering use of information technologies, a fact which continues to rattle their corporate targets.
Each day, information about Nike flows freely via e-mail between the U.S. National Labor Committee and The Campaign for Labor Rights; the Dutch-based Clean Clothes Campaign; the Australian Fairwear Campaign; the Hong Kong-based Asian Monitoring and Resource Centre; the British Labour Behind the Label Coalition and Christian Aide; the French Agir Ici and Artisans du Monde; the German Werkstatt Okonomie; the Belgian Les Magasins de Monde; and the Canadian Maquila Solidarity Network ¾ to name but a few of the players. In a September 1997 press release, Nike attacked its critics as "fringe groups, which are again using the Internet and fax modems to promote mistruths and distortions for their own purposes." But by March 1998, Nike was ready to treat its online critics with a little more respect. In explaining why it had just introduced yet another package of labour reforms, company spokesman Vada Manager said, "You make changes because it’s the right thing to do. But obviously our actions have clearly been accelerated because of the World Wide Web."
Shell was similarly humbled by the mobility of both the Brent Spar campaign and the Ogoni support movement. Natural resource companies had grown accustomed to dealing with activists who could not escape the confines of their nationhood: a pipeline or mine could spark a peasants’ revolt in the Philippines or the Congo, but it would remain contained, reported only by the local media as a local story. But today, every time Shell sneezes, a report goes out on the hyper-active "shell-nigeria-action" listserve, bouncing into the in-boxes of all the far-flung organizers involved in the campaign, from Nigerian leaders living in exile to student activists around the world. And when a group of activists occupied part of Shell’s U.K. headquarters in January 1999, they made sure to bring a digital camera with a cellular link-up, allowing them to broadcast their sit-in on the Web, even after Shell officials turned off the electricity and phones.
Shell has responded to the rise of Net activism with an aggressive Internet strategy of its own: in 1996, it hired Simon May, a 29-year-old "Internet Manager." According to May, "There has been a shift in the balance of power, activists are no longer entirely dependent on the existing media. Shell learned it the hard way with the Brent Spar, when a lot of information was disseminated outside the regular channels." But if the power balance has shifted, it is May’s job to shift it back in Shell’s favour: he oversees the monitoring of all on-line mentions of the company, responds to email queries about social issues, and has helped to establish Shell’s on-line "social concerns" discussion forum on the company web site.
The Internet played a similar role during the McLibel Trial, catapulting London’s grassroots anti-McDonald’s movement into an arena as global as the one in which its multi-national opponent operates. "We had so much information about McDonald’s, we thought we should start a library," Dave Morris explains, and with this in mind, a group of Internet activists launched the McSpotlight website. The site not only has the controversial pamphlet on-line, it contains the complete 20,000-page transcript of the trial, and offers a debating room where McDonald’s workers can exchange horror stories about McWork under the Golden Arches. The site, one of the most popular destinations on the web, has been accessed approximately 65-million times.
Ben, one of the studiously low-profile programmers for McSpotlight told me that, "this is a medium that doesn’t require campaigners to jump through hoops doing publicity stunts, or depend on the good will of an editor to get their message across." It’s also less vulnerable to libel suits than more traditional media. Ben explains that while McSpotlight’s server is located in the Netherlands, it has "mirror sites" in Finland, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. That means that if a server in one country is targeted by McDonald’s lawyers, the site will still be available around the world from the other mirrors. In the meantime, everyone visiting the site is invited to vote on whether or not McSpotlight will get sued. "Is McSpotlight next in court?" Click on "yes" or "no."
Once again, the broader corporate world is scrambling to learn the lessons of these campaigns. Speaking in Brussels at a June 1998 conference on the growing power of anti-corporate groups, Peter Verhille of the P.R. firm Entente International, noted that "One of the major strengths of pressure groups ¾ in fact the leveling factor in their confrontation with powerful companies ¾ is their ability to exploit the instruments of the telecommunication revolution. Their agile use of global tools such the Internet reduces the advantage that corporate budgets once provided." Indeed the beauty of the Net for activists is that it allows coordinated international actions with minimal resources and bureaucracy. For instance, for the International Nike Days of Action, local activists simply download information pamphlets from the Campaign for Labor Rights web site to hand out at their protests, then file detailed e-mail reports from Sweden, Australia, the U.S. and Canada, which are then forwarded to all participating groups.
A similar electronic clearinghouse model has been used to co-ordinate Reclaim the Streets’ global street parties and the picketing outside McDonald’s outlets after the McLibel Verdict. The McSpotlight programmers posted a list of all 793 McDonald’s franchises in Britain and in the weeks before the verdict came down, local activists signed up to "adopt a store (and teach it some repect)" on the day of protest. More than half were adopted. I had been following all of this closely from Canada, but when I finally got a chance to see the London headquarters of the McLibel Support Campaign ¾ the hub from which hundreds of political actions had been launched around the world, linking up thousands of protesters and becoming a living archive for all things anti-McDonald’s ¾ I was shocked. In my mind, I had pictured an office crammed with people tapping away on high-tech equipment. I should have known better: McLibel’s head office is nothing more than a tiny room at the back of a London flat with graffiti in the stairwells. The office walls are papered in subvertisements and anarchist agit-prop. Helen Steel, Dave Morris, Dan Mills and a few dozen volunteers had gone head to head with McDonald’s for seven years with a rickety P.C., an old modem, one telephone and a fax machine. Dan Mills apologized to me for the absence of an extra chair.
Tony Juniper of Britain’s environmental group, Friends of the Earth, calls the Web "the most potent weapon in the toolbox of resistance." That may well be so but the Net is more than an organizing tool ¾ it has become an organizing model. The Web is a blueprint for decentralized but co-operative decision-making. It facilitates the process of information sharing to such a degree that many groups can work in concert with one another without the need to achieve monolithic consensus (often impossible given the nature of activist organizations). And because it is so decentralized, these movements are still in the process of forging links with their various wings around the world, continually surprising themselves with how far unreported little victories have traveled, how thoroughly bits of research have been recycled and absorbed. These movements are only now starting to feel their own reach and, as the students and local communities profiled in the next chapter will show, their own power.
Reprinted with permission from Flamingo, copyright 2000.