Fast-food worker strikes, low pay and the useless self-appointed commentariat


Here are a few thoughts on the US fast-food-chain workers’ wage-battles and why any economic recovery will mean nothing to you if you are somebody who has to work to make enough money to live. Probably, like most people, you are in that category. Which means – tough shit for you.

I also offer this piece as an example of some of the reasons why the recent twitterstorms about misogyny have seriously pissed me off.

I will start this part of things by making clear that I DO NOT think that the threats and evil treatment that some people experience online are acceptable. I don’t think that at all. Why the hell would I?

What I DO think, though, is this. I think that an awful lot of other things happen but are passed over, because they don’t happen to the self-appointed twitter/op-ed commentariat, or don’t interest that group of people, or some bloody thing.

Who really knows. I don’t know how this shit works. I don’t move in those circle-jerks. I’m never even asked to and I don’t suppose my invite is in the mail. I just get very bloody annoyed when so many other issues that people must deal with – that women in particular must deal with – are sidelined, or completely ignored (you could say that “sidelined” is actually a good result these days, because being sidelined is better than being completely ignored), because they don’t take place on twitter and they don’t happen to twitter media “personalities.” It’s as though we’ve got to the point where if something doesn’t happen on twitter and doesn’t have a loud commentator with 10k+ followers attached to it, it just doesn’t happen. It’s invisible. Silent. It’s the tree falling in the forest – crashing down dead in the forest, really – with nobody around to hear it. It disappears. Gone. Never happened. Bye. It isn’t part of the stream of self-serving, “my pain is the most important pain and by the way have you read my very important newspaper column in the dying mainstream publication I write for” bollocks that passes for political dialogue today. Or something. I believe and will always believe that the best journalism is produced by reporters who produce work about people other than themselves and/or who don’t twist and twist a story until they’re at the centre of it.

I suppose there is a chance that that side of things is not worth getting worked up about. We’re very likely doomed anyway. Like – people were reading Andy Burnham in this week in the Guardian and talking about him as though he was some sort of hero of the people and that superman had been found. I wanted to flush my own head away when I heard that. That told me all I needed to know about the world’s chances of rescue from austerity right there.

Anyway…. wages. McDonald’s strikers, KFC strikers and strikers here and the fight against low wages:

So – pretty much to the day that reports of striking US McDonald’s and KFC workers started to filter through, I was aboard a 47 bus and riding past the Hilton on Tooley Street when I heard whistles blowing and then saw red Unite flags waving (this isn’t the beginning of a song) and my fellow travellers and I were presented with a scene which I’ve seen a number of times now in the last weeks and months in South East London – a group of pissed-off, low-paid workers yelling and protesting, as well they might, about their appalling pay rates and/or management plans to cut their already-low pay even further. There are often a lot of women in these groups and people are often black and Asian and they have certainly said to me, from time to time, that they think these cuts are sexist and racist.

So. I thought I’d go and see what was happening and so I departed the 47 and walked back to the protest… and sure enough, the group outside the Hilton was made up of union reps and union members who clean the big hotels for a “living,” if you can call it that – they were fighting for something better than the £6-and-£7-an-hour and zero-hours, dismissal-on-the-spot working “arrangements” that hotel workers are meant to feel grateful for.

As soon as I got off the bus and walked in to the protest and the noise, a woman began to talk to me. She was furious. She got straight to the point, which I reproduce here, because she said it all: her issue, and everybody’s issue really, was simply our era’s awful and destructive problem with distribution. “All these hotels are full of rich people. They are millionaires. Some of the people are billionaires. And people have to clean their toilets for not enough money to live on. What are people supposed to live on? How is that fair? That is not fair.”

She was right. That’s it and that’s austerity. It’s not fair. It’s intentionally and dangerously and vastly unfair and that’s one of the reasons that I take a real interest in the bitter wage fights that keep cropping up and cropping up around this country and in the US and Europe and that won’t go away, no matter how the BBC and others in the mainstream press refuse to report or even acknowledge them. For most people, the future will be zero-hours “arrangements” and wages that fall, not rise, as time goes on and more excuses for austerity and wage-smashing and board-profiteering are found and as employment rights and affordable lawyers to defend them disappear altogether and as unions continue to refuse to break strike law and take everybody out on strike, for as long as it takes – and that is why these pay-and-conditions disputes that are raging across the country between low-paid workers and employers like London’s so-called hospitality sector are relevant to anybody who must earn a wage.

This disease will spread. Nobody who needs a wage will be safe from cut wages and deteriorating conditions. Fighting unions and employment rights enshrined in law were all that ever stood between working people and abuse from the hierarchy. That hasn’t changed, as we’ll see. I think a lot of people will see that, unfortunately. People should never, ever imagine that they’re safe, because they’re not. Even back in the day, they were not. When I was a trade union rep, in the mid-2000s before Unison threw me out for wanting to break the Labour link – one noticeable phenomenon was that people who’d always looked down on union membership and laughed at trade union reps and who’d always, always thought that they were safe from management attacks because they were good and because they were in – people who were well-paid, a way up the hierarchy and sometimes managers themselves – suddenly found that they weren’t as safe as all that. In fact, they weren’t safe at all.

A reorganisation document would come around and their jobs would be earmarked for redundancy in it and they just couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe it. They’d played the game and then suddenly found that they were no longer players in the game. Or – the insidious stuff – their own managers had begun to lean on them using the subtle, vile tactics that they themselves had always used: asking them, as staff members, why they were two minutes late in the morning, dismissing their suggestions and contributions in front of others at team meetings, calling them into an office several times a week to ask why their work wasn’t of a standard any more, or why certain decisions had been made instead of others but never quite saying what the problem was, or overlooking them for promotion, or training chances, or excluding them from decision-making, but involving people of a similar rank, or saying that management had decided to put the person they had in their sights on report, “to keep an eye on their work” without ever really explaining why. When management starts lining people up with that sort of crap, everybody knows that they’ve had it. Certainly, people who’ve used those crappy techniques on other people themselves know it. It can happen for all sorts of reasons. Suddenly, somebody somewhere has decided you’re surplus to requirements. If you feel you’re safe from all of that, you’re wrong.

You’d certainly be wrong at the moment. You’d be wrong because austerity is still the only game in town and wages cuts, and even wagelessness, is a crucial part of that. Doesn’t matter if the private sector and the economy “recover” or even if they recover spectacularly. Power is utterly convinced that a shit employment reality is the only option for people who rely on a wage.

Power believes that even when it is watching its own organisation and future disappear round the u-bend on the back of cuts. I find this part of things interesting – that management will attack and cut even while acknowledging that the outcome is likely to be useless at best.

I thought about this a lot when, several weeks ago, I had a chat – we’ll call it that, even though it was more an oral brawl – with one Bill Puddicombe, CE of an outfit called Equinox Care. I’ve had a few fucked-up interfaces over the past few years, but I’m sharing the one with Bill with you because it really rated.

Equinox is a charity which provides support services for people with drug and alcohol problems and mental health conditions across the South East. The organisation came to my attention for the same reason that the London hotel staff dispute did last week – staff were on strike and out in the street, screaming bloody hell about their pay and conditions, and people were talking about it. As well they might. Equinox staff were on strike a couple of weeks ago in protest at management plans to slash their wages – by as much as £8000 a year in some cases (Alan White and I wrote a story on that here).

They were livid at management and livid in particular at Puddicombe, who they said refused to negotiate, or change his position.

Puddicombe, when we made phone contact to talk about all of this, was so fucked off with me and unions and the world that he just about blew a hole in the phone. And boo hoo to that in the long run, but, you know – it’s worth us having a look at here.

So I say, there was Bill. He was fucked off. He was fucked off with all sorts of things. He was fucked off with Unite and a highly amusing banner that somebody had put together: his face and a nice big caption which read “Bill Puddicombe – the face of cuts in social care.” Those posters were plastered all over the place and being waved at heavy traffic from the pickets, which were receiving a lot of support if the carhorn-honking and applause was anything to go by. But Bill was fucked off for a reason that I think he thought transcended all of that. He was angry because, he said, the union and staff and even fabulous reporters like me were in a kind of denial. We didn’t get the reality of the world that small charities were forced to operate in. That world was cutthroat and that world was competitive and the only chance a place like Equinox had if it was going to compete for contracts was to smash salaries. That, he said, was the part I DIDN’T GET. As far as he was concerned, not getting that part was just not an option. And this is my point – that these people honestly believe that tiny wages for workers are inevitable. Even when they are not sure that wage cuts will save an organisation – and Bill said he was not sure they would – wage cuts are still inevitable. The line is that we must accept that. There is no alternate narrative at all.

The part he didn’t get was why I thought this was a story.

“Can I ask for what reason you were part of the protest outside our office?” he blew down the phone by way of introduction.

“Calm down,” I said to Bill. It was all a bit early and painful on my ears and I wasn’t sure I was up to a frothing CE on the morning in question. And Jesus bloody Christ, Bill, I thought to myself. Let’s look at what was happening here. People were losing money that they couldn’t afford to lose and didn’t think they should have to (much mention was made on the Equinox pickets of MPs’ payrises, just as an aisde. People were finding it hard to buy into the general “we’re all making sacrifices” line). Had Bill really expected people to respond well to his demand that they take pay cuts of several thousand pounds a year? Did he not believe that a heated response was on the cards when he told staff they had to take that cut? I’d been talking to people on the picket who’d said that some in their number might have to use foodbanks to make ends meet. Did senior managers genuinely think that workers ought to take that sort of slap in the face and be grateful? Did they really think the government’s “we’ve all got to tighten our belts” line has been sold?

I dunno, you know. I spend time on the phone with a guy like Bill and I think– Jesus. Maybe these guys do think people will embrace them and their hatchets. Maybe they really do think that people can be convinced that the best way to provide a good service is to cut funding to it and to throw anyone who uses it or provides it onto a slagheap.

“I’m a journalist,” I told Bill. “So I go to where things happen.”

“So you weren’t there as part of the protests?” he sprayed.

“Journalists go to things where there are protests,” I told him.

“Was that at Unite’s invitation?” Bill said.

“I go to things that are happening,” I told Bill again. I was starting to feel as old as I am by this point. Did it matter how I got there? Does it matter how any of us got here? The point is that people hate being here. That’s why they’re pissed off with people like Bill. They were working away and doing fine and earning enough and then suddenly Fred Goodwin blows the lot on a horse somewhere and then the rest of us are lined up to pay for that forever and someone like Bill Puddicombe turns up to enforce it. That’s why people are hostile. It never ceases to amaze me, you know – this expectation that senior people have that people on the receiving end of austerity should, somehow, get it and get over it. They should voice their opposition to it politely, if they voice it at all.

People who are enforcing austerity don’t seem to understand why people on the arse end of cuts won’t embrace their chance to contribute their wages and futures to… whatever the fuck it is. You get this everywhere. Raised voices cause management pain and are often taken as reason to end discussions and negotiations, if indeed there are any. Protestors are expected to be peaceful and polite, and a union (which is, let’s not forget, simply a collection of workers at its essence) shouldn’t put up a full-blooded and uncompromising fight for members’ jobs and wages and complain that people are being told to eat shit while bankers and boards trouser uber wages and bonuses. I don’t know why people are surprised to find that people hate their tormentors. I mean – it’s taken years, but even I’ve learned that being a cunt to others has repercussions. I’m not saying that’s changed my behaviour, or that it will. I’m just saying I’ve observed that there is such a thing as cause and effect.

The thing is – Bill was basically saying (and this is my point) that austerity was the only game in town and that meant crap wages, for workers at least, and anyone who refused to grasp that reality would be swept away by the whole wave of shit, so people should grab these chances to keep their faces just above it. “I don’t think you understand what the world is like for small, vulnerable, charity organisations,” he said testily. “I can campaign as much as I like, I can jump up and down and say what I believe, which is that people’s salaries should not be reduced, but that will make not a whit of difference.”

I suggested that this “roll over and let others die” approach might not represent exactly the thrusting, high-end management thinking that low-paid staff and people who used the services that Equinox provided wanted, or indeed needed, at this point. You know. At some point, somebody somewhere is going to have to say That’s Enough. The Financial Sector Has Had All It’s Going To Get. The Political Class Has Had All It’s Going To Get. So It’s Time The Financial Sector and The Political Class Fucked Off. Said I to Bill: “you have a situation where people nationally are being put into situations where their salaries are being driven down and down and down. And there is no impetus from people are senior level to change that. Where’s the campaign, say, for further business, or for pushing councils for bigger contracts, or for pushing central government for more money? Wouldn’t there be a place for your organisation – even from management side – to be working with Unite to say that we need to have a bottom line for salaries here and we can’t go any further?”

Only in Fantasyland, said Bill in as many words.

So that was me and Bill. And that’s why people are striking and fighting like hell for their wages. Nobody else is going to do it for them. Nobody else thinks it’s even worth trying.


But hey ho and on we go.

Let’s go to Barnet – a place where workers have long been able to count on wage-smashing and pay attacks at the hands of the council and Barnet council’s various rubbish private partners.

News in this week from Barnet Unison alerts us to the fact that wage cuts are on the cards for a group of low-paid workers (most of them women) whose job is to accompany and support children with special educational needs to school.

“The impact on the majority of coach escorts could see their earning drop from £8,891.67 to £5,845.84 a year,” Barnet Unison tells us. Joy. Remind me again how much money Iain Duncan Smith has blown on his Universal Credit disaster and how much is being spent bailing that useless fucker out. There are days when I almost can’t stand this.

Says one of the targeted Barnet staff members: “I work for Barnet Transport and as an employee, I have to be fully qualified to escort these children, attend courses and have certificates to prove I have passed these courses. Some of the disabilities our children have range from ADHD, to autism, Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy…there are wheelchair users.

“The council cuts our pay and hours but there are an increasing number of the children travelling on the bus. The council needs us to continue our excellent services. Escorts are only part time, if our money is cut further as they propose, then qualified escorts will have to seek other employment which would leave the children with agency escorts who are not as qualified.”

Also from Unison:
1. Most coach escorts work a maximum 20 hours a week, although many would like to work more.
2. There are approximately 160 coach escorts providing this service. According to figures provided by the council 83 are directly employed by the Council the rest are agency workers.
3. Most coach escorts earn up to £8,891.67 a year.

So there you have it – another story of the annihilation of people’s pay.

So – the moral of today’s piece is….

In a seriously fucked-up way, it is becoming clear that I/we/everybody needs a couple of twitter commentariat celebs who are prepared to attach themselves to all of this. My own standards are not high and I’m prepared to look at anyone at this point. Except Hundal, I think. I think that would put me over the edge.

3 thoughts on “Fast-food worker strikes, low pay and the useless self-appointed commentariat

  1. Spot on Kate glad to know another understands it all I have no words for the glory hunters the know it all fuckwits who basically know fuck all crazy life eh wouldn’t mind but life is just getting crazier by the minute wouldn’t mind but most of it illogical like a big kindergarten and oh the huge amounts of money being wasted one of these fine days I think I write a book when I tell people my story they say no way never in blighty oh yes it does seriously crazy wonder when or if the day will ever dawn when someone stands up and says omg look at the mess we have created none of it rocket science probably bit late now look at me limited air space who the hell determined this for me on Friday my cytoxic drugs get delivered in great guy he sees all the nasty s mornin sweet pea he says hi how’s you says me oops he said can see you not good me nope no fekin sleep not surprised he said that bloody door bang bang 24/7 crazy you all got your own doors I said I know given the door chuck in a bit of anti social shaken not stirred that’s me cookin to which I laughed thanked him for my delivery to which he said by sweet pea you all right you gettin there got to laugh at the whole lot and the ridiculous ness of it animal farm comes to mind

    • “I/we/everybody needs a couple of twitter commentariat celebs who are prepared to attach themselves to all of this”

      I think this piece is excellent, but I wonder about the conclusion. It is certainly good evidence that the commentariat are a waste of column inches that they fail to focus on these issues, but I’m not sure that means it would help if they suddenly chose to because:
      a) they’d do it badly. Make it all about soft-support for labour, or show their distance from the reality by turning it all into jokes, or make it an academic matter, best solved by a technocratic elite, or…, or…, or…
      b) it would perpetuate reliance on these people. In the age of twitter/youtube etc, we should instead be doing all we can to break (accelerate the breaking of) the opinion-monopoly the commentariat command. It shouldn’t be hard. Just needs people publicising posts like this more than those of the ‘left’ commentariat, and maybe a Question Time/Any questions/Moral Maze ‘of the left’ on youtube… who’s with me?

      • Yep – I was being sarcastic, really about that part of things, the tragedy being when I’ve asked if someone in that category could step forward to pick up these issues, I have been met with dead silence. Sniff. Your point is the key one though. The real solution is to start to sidestep or at least speak as loudly as some of the names. I don’t really want to get personal about it because I don’t really feel bitchy about it, but I do think that something really dangerous has begun to happen here. Because the press – or what’s left of it after so many cuts and redundancies – spends so much time on twitter and must justify itself by publishing stories which drive massive traffic, even if that traffic is largely made up of people queuing to tell the writer to get stuffed, everything else is getting sidelined. A few years ago, that wasn’t quite such an issue because twitter wasn’t quite so big, or such a direct route to notice.

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