On the face of it, a handful of workers going on strike at McDonald’s is no big deal.
Some 40 workers – the company says it is actually only 14 – going on strike, out of a total UK workforce of 85,000, hardly seems earth-shattering. Only two of the company’s 1,270 UK restaurants – in Cambridge and Crayford – are affected.
Video: McDonalds workers ‘don’t get paid enough’
However, the strike does have significance, and not just because it is the first in this country since the fast-food behemoth opened its first UK restaurant at Woolwich, south London, in 1974.
It is notoriously hard to get the type of workers who walked out today to join a union, let alone go on strike. Getting even a handful of employees to do so is an achievement of sorts.
The question is whether other McDonald’s UK employees will want to take similar action.
The chances are that they will not.
Image: Workers on strike outside the McDonald’s branch in Crayford
McDonald’s UK announced in April that it was giving workers the choice between working on a flexible contract or on a fixed contract with a minimum number of working hours guaranteed to them. According to the company, 86% of workers chose to remain on flexible contracts.
This was unsurprising. While some people deplore so-called zero-hours contracts as exploitative, research suggests most people working in this way like the flexibility of such arrangements.
Many tend to be students, who are juggling work with their studies, or older workers who wish not to work full-time but who like to remain active by working periodically.
Moreover, according to the latest employment data, the number of people working on such contracts is falling.
During the three months to the end of June, the number of workers on zero-hours contracts fell by 20,000 to 883,000, while most jobs presently being created are full-time.
Image: Supporters and striking staff also staged a rally in Westminster
What is surprising about the McDonald’s dispute is that, in offering workers the choice between flexible working or a fixed-hours contract, the company has actually followed what is regarded as best practice.
The other issue raised by the strikers is pay. The strikers argue a business enjoying strong profits growth like McDonald’s UK can afford to pay more – and, again, this strike encapsulates a wider global debate.
Globally, relative to corporate profits, wages have been static for years. The counter-argument is that the over-riding problem faced by the UK economy is poor productivity.
According to the latest data, productivity per UK worker is now actually lower than before the financial crisis.
Without improvements in productivity, employers argue, they cannot afford to raise wages. That is why, even though unemployment is at a 42-year low, wages growth has been stagnant.
There is one more significant factor about the McDonald’s strike. Many on the Left hate McDonald’s.
For the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both of whom have backed the strikers, McDonald’s – due to its size and presence in so many countries – embodies globalisation.
Their opinions of McDonald’s have changed little since the 1990s when, in a public relations disaster, the company sued a pair of unemployed vegetarian campaigners who had libelled it in a leaflet making claims about the company and its food.
McDonald’s won the case but, in the process, came across as an unfeeling corporate Goliath bullying a couple of plucky Davids. Shortly afterwards, the term “McJob” was coined, shorthand for a low-paid job with poor prospects.
The irony is that McDonald’s learned from the experience and worked hard to turn around public perception of its food and its employment practices. It has since won countless awards for being a model employer and for offering good career advancement.
Video: Zero hours contracts explained
Nine in 10 of its UK restaurant managers started out as “crew” and have worked for the company for an average of 15 years.
McDonald’s began engaging with its critics rather than just confronting them and, over time, perceptions of what it is like have improved. That generated higher sales and profits.
Nowhere was that turnaround more impressive than in the UK, and the man behind it, Watford-born Steve Easterbrook, is now the global CEO of McDonald’s.
He will doubtless want assuring that the good work he did at McDonald’s UK all those years ago is not unravelling.