NUS Withdraws From McDonald's 'Privilege Card' Scheme

Motion passed at NUS Conference condemning McDonald's for its exploitative practices

14th April 1998

The National Union of Students ('NUS') Conference passed a motion on 31st March 1998 mandating the NUS National Executive Committee ('NEC') to "withdraw from the McDonald's 'privilege card'" scheme and to condemn the company for its "anti-union practices, exploitation of employees, its contribution to the destruction of the environment, animal cruelty and promotion of unhealthy food products".

At the beginning of the current academic year, the NUS distributed McDonald's 'privilege cards' to all UK students. The card (valid all through the academic year) enables NUS members who order a Big Mac, fries and drink to get an extra hamburger or cheeseburger for free.

Many students and some members of the NUS NEC were extremely concerned by this association between the NUS and the fast food giant, and were determined to ensure that the association was not continued. London Greenpeace greatly welcomes this decision.


McDonald's operations were examined in the recent 'McLibel' Trial (McDonald's Corp v Steel & Morris). At the end of the trial, the Judge slammed McDonald's core business practices. He found as a fact that:
  • McDonald's "exploit children" through their advertising;
  • they are "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals;
  • the company is anti-Union and pays such low wages that it helps to depress the already low wages in the catering industry even further;
  • McDonald's are deceiving the public when they promote their food as nutritious.
In addition, the evidence in the trial completely backed up all the criticisms of the company in the "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" leaflet, including:
  • McDonald's responsibility for rainforest destruction.
  • The waste, litter and pollution caused by the mountains of disposable packaging used by McDonald's.
The NUS clearly did not want to be associated any longer with a company that is responsible for this exploitation of people, animals and the environment.


(1) Students' health will suffer

The card encourages students to eat more of McDonald's junk food, which is high in fat, salt, and sugar, and low in fibre and vitamins. A diet of this type is linked to a greater risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. Their food also contains many chemical additives, some of which may cause ill-health. The Food Commission in an article on the "privilege card" stated "We predict a rapid rise in coronary bypass operations among university graduates in about twenty years' time."

(2) McDonald's exploit their workers, many of whom are students

McDonald's depends for their profits on the labour of young people, many of whom are students. Approximately two thirds of McDonald's crew are under 21.

McDonald's workers are paid low wages. McDonald's do not pay overtime rates even when employees work very long hours. Pressure to keep profits high and wage costs low results in understaffing, so staff have to work harder and faster. As a consequence, accidents (particularly burns) are common. The majority of employees are people who have few job options and so are forced to accept this exploitation, and they're compelled to 'smile' too! Not surprisingly staff turnover at McDonald's is high, making it virtually impossible to unionise and fight for a better deal, which suits McDonald's who have always been opposed to Unions.

In the McLibel Trial, two dozen ex-employees and trade unionists testifying for the Defence laid bare the reality of McDonald's unethical, illegal and oppressive working practices, and the company's hostility to trade unions.

(3) McDonald's censorship policy - many student unions have been bullied

For many years now, McDonald's tactics in the face of this criticism have been to step up their own propaganda efforts to project a green and caring image, and at the same time to use libel laws to bully and intimidate their critics into silence (like Robert Maxwell). Among the company's critics who, in the past, have been forced to apologise or back down are Channel 4, the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, the Bournemouth Advertiser, the Scottish TUC, MSF union, the Transnationals Information Centre, the Vegetarian Society, playwrights, and even Prince Philip. The following student unions have also been bullied by McDonald's (by threats of legal action): Leeds SU, Kingston On Thames Polytechnic, University of Surrey, Plymouth Polytechnic, Hatfield Polytechnic, and Cassio College.

(4) Students' campaigning work undermined

Furthermore, many students (in the UK and around the world) are campaigning against McDonald's. Indeed, some student unions have passed motions condemning McDonald's for their oppressive and exploitative practices. On Saturday 21st June 1997 (immediately after the verdict the McLibel Trial), campaigners (including many students) held an International Victory Day of Action and leafleted outside McDonald's stores around the world to demonstrate McDonald's failure to silence its critics. Over 500 of the company's 750 UK stores were leafleted in a show of conviction that all the criticisms in the 'What's Wrong With McDonald's?' leaflets are true. 3 million of these leaflets have now been handed out in the UK since the writs were served.

The NUS Conference has backed the belief of many students that the message which should be given to students is to avoid companies like McDonald's that depend for their profits on the exploitation of people, animals and the environment. Up till now, the privilege card has been having the opposite effect.

London Greenpeace has materials available on McDonald's and the McLibel Trial which provide detailed information on the issues. There is also a book currently available (published by Pan) called "McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial" by John Vidal, a Guardian journalist. And there is the McSpotlight website on the Internet ( which contains everything McDonald's doesn't want the public to know. The site includes all the official court transcripts, witness statements from both sides, 21 in-depth interviews with key characters and witnesses, resources for campaigners, and 28 other companies in the McSpotlight. Finally, the exclusive documentary "McLibel: Two Worlds Collide" is now available on video - contact or Tel 0171 247 8881 for details.

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