The day McDonald’s workers walked out on strike was the best day of Shen Batmaz’s life: she has even tattooed the date on her arm. “I was so tired and overwhelmed,” she recalls as she stood on a picket line outside a branch of the fast-food chain in Crawley. “I was standing there with people I worked with and loved; we were working together to achieve something. It was the most powerful I’d ever felt in my life.” McStrike was born.
This week, retail and hospitality workers at JD Wetherspoon, McDonald’s, Uber Eats and TGI Fridays will march out together in a coordinated strike. It is a battle that may determine the future of an increasingly precarious and exploited workforce.
Britain’s unions were broken and battered by Thatcherism and never recovered. While more than half of workers were union members in 1979, today the figure is less than a quarter. It is the younger workers who are least likely to be unionised: a mere 8% of workers under 25 are members. The lack of any organised counterweight to the power of bosses has left many employees lacking security, ill treated at work, and paid derisory wages. Indeed, while Britain’s workers suffered the worst squeeze in wages of any industrialised nation other than Greece, the fall has been felt sharpest by the youngest: for workers aged 18 to 21, real weekly wages collapsed by 16% in the years after the crash.
Batmaz is now a union official with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), having spent two years at McDonald’s. She experienced the misery bred by the insecurity of zero-hours contracts but this proved a catalyst for a fightback. She began signing up staff to the union, and staff convened a joint meeting of workers at the Cambridge and Crayford branches: US workers from the Fight for $15 campaign addressed them, and the fire was lit. “There was a moment in that meeting when we all looked at each other and decided: if we really are going to make an impact and change anything, we have to go on strike.”
One of the challenges facing the fightback is cultural. In the hyper-exploitative sector of retail and hospitality, workers are made to feel worthless – undeserving of a proper wage and genuine security. “We have to start thinking: we deserve more than this,” as Batmaz puts it. “Everyone deserves to be able to live and have a good life.” These workers are treated as easily replaceable: they are told that if poverty pay and being treated with contempt isn’t their bag, there are always others willing to submit. “Their whole business plan depends on us being dispensable, that someone else can take our job,” says Alex McIntyre, 19, a striking Wetherspoons worker in Brighton.
McStrike proved a detonator, inspiring young workers for whom unions were alien. Wetherspoons worker Katie Southworth, 22, speaks for many of Britain’s youth when she describes her impression of a union: “Old men sitting in a room debating issues that were out of date a generation ago.” When she saw young McDonald’s workers fighting for basic rights, it was an education: “They were under 30, we could relate to them.” Their demands – a £10-an-hour minimum wage, the abolition of discriminatory youth rates, and union recognition – are modest in their own right, but they require a radical change to a precariousness hardwired into Britain’s economic model.
It was the young who helped deprive the Tories of their majority and plunge the government into crisis. It is that spirit that is shifting from the ballot box to the workplace. Thatcherism sought to break a sense of collective solidarity. The individual would only better their conditions through their own efforts, went the mantra: those who failed could only blame themselves. But this dogma is rapidly colliding with lived experience. “I knew workers had never won better living standards and better conditions and power by relying on the generosity of any government or these companies,” Wetherspoons worker Chris Hepple, 29, tells me. “But until I actually saw it in practice, I didn’t realise it was something we could actually do.”
That sense of collective strength is being relearned by a new generation who lack secure, properly paid jobs and affordable decent homes, while being punished with debt if they aspire to a university education. “If you as an individual knock on [Wetherspoons boss] Tim Martin’s door and want this to happen, nothing will change,” as Southworth puts it. “If we do it collectively, that’s when change happens.”
In the 1980s, the trade unions suffered a series of calamitous setbacks. Mass unemployment terrified workers into not risking the wrath of bosses. Repressive anti-union laws stunted the ability of workers to organise and defend their rights. Devastating defeats, not least the miners’ strike, inculcated a sense of futility. There are other challenges today too: as the striking workers acknowledge, the huge turnover in their sectors makes organising very difficult. But after an era of retreat, a younger generation is offering leadership.
In south London’s Ritzy cinema, exploited workers have fought a long battle for a living wage and union recognition. Deliveroo drivers are going to court to demand basic rights such as a minimum wage and paid holidays. These are green shoots; they may well thrive.
What gives hope is that young people are not simply looking at winning gains in their own workplaces: their vision is nothing less than the transformation of the entire sector, and society itself. “We’re not naive enough to think we’ll be handed everything straight away,” Hepple says. “But if we come together in the hospitality industry, we hope we can drive wages and conditions not just in our industry, but across society in general.”
They don’t just want a decent wage and rights: they want a voice in their workplace too. Neoliberalism has left Britain’s boss classes drunk on triumphalism, paying themselves record salaries and bonuses while their workers are imprisoned by poverty and insecurity. It was never going to last. Hubris may well be about to meet its nemesis: an army of young, precarious, but determined workers.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist