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by Jean-Guy Allard Sunday, Jun. 10, 2001 at 8:58 AM

In the '90s, McDonald's was nicknamed the triumphant symbol of U.S. imperialism, but with the dawn of the new millennium its role has changed to that of the black beast of the new antiglobalization wave . Pursued by activists, trade unionists and ecologists, the chain has realized that it is time to deal with its decline.

If in the 1990s the arrival of a McDonald's restaurant in

Pushkin Square foretold the fall of the Soviet Union and the

years of ringing triumph for U.S. imperialism, the dawn of the

new millennium has confirmed the international fast-food king's

role as the black beast of the new wave of globalization.

Its Moscow opening was the fruit of deals made by Canadian

emissaries. The first Russian McDonald's was represented a

million-dollar investment and became a main attraction for the

nascent bourgeoisie overnight. This representation of the

"American way of life" became the most elegant meeting place

for up-and-coming entrepreneurs and the nouveau riche

inhabitants of Russia's capital city.

Ten years have passed, the world has changed a great deal, and

this gastronomic symbol of U.S. hegemony is now a victim of

the very phenomenon that engendered its success:


In Seattle and Quebec, in Paris and Milan, a rejection of

neoliberalism and its uncontrollable propagation has

transformed the golden arches, the chain's famous logo, into

public enemy number one for the vast legions of

antiglobalization activists.

In Paris a group of young people called AARRG (Apprentice

Agitators for a Network of Resistance of Globalization)

attacked 20 McDonald's with stink bombs; in Rome, Turin,

Naples and Palermo, thousands of Italians attacked dozens of

McDonald's by throwing ground beef at the windows; in London

McDonald's was ransacked when riots broke out during an

anti-globalization protest.

In fact the name of the U.S. firm has become an inevitable

protest target, not only because of its "imperial" nature but

also because of everything that capitalism represents:

uncontrollable consumerism, environmental contamination,

foods lacking in nutritional value, no respect for the worker

and other disasters.


In France, Jos Bové, the charismatic leader of the small

farmers confederation, headed a violent protest against a

McDonald's under construction in the town of Millau, in a

region famous for its production of the renowned Roquefort

cheese, the pride of the gastronomic Gauls. He was sentenced

to three months' imprisonment, but Bové became a nationally

recognized figure; his thick farmer's moustache invited

comparisons with Astérix, the cartoon character that

fearlessly fought the legions of the Roman Empire. Bové soon

reached international levels when he took his troops to

Seattle to the famous protest that shook up the World Trade

Organization Summit.

Observers confirm that the first mistake that led to the

transnational's image change was made in 1994 when, with

undeniable arrogance, it took two British ecologists who had

publicly criticized the chain to court in London. David Morris

and Helen Steel were two penniless activists who published a

"list of facts" about McDonald's that the company considered

slanderous. Morris and Steel represented themselves against a

team of lawyers contracted by the transnational. The trial

lasted more than two years and the court unfairly ruled in

favor of the U.S. chain, but the public had already taken the

side of the two humble but dignified victims; the untouchable

image of the American giant was stained.

From that moment on the company, based in the U.S. state of

Illinois, has had to face numerous claims which have started

to chip away the gold of the big M, the letter which

identifies 28,000 branches worldwide.


In Bombay the Islam fundamentalists attack the restaurants -

for using beef flavoring in a country where the cow is a

sacred animal - and in Waitekere City, USA, the city council

has imposed huge fines on McDonald's for being the champion of

contamination due to its uncontrolled use of disposable

materials. All over the world, McDonald's is now suffering a

rebellion from a work force that is angry about its systematic


McDonald's employs more than a million young people all over

the world and its public relation's department states that it

is a creator of jobs par excellence.

Its commercial adversaries, however, maintain that the chain

pays low wages and keeps creating more branches to effectively

rid the market of competition.

Universally, McDonald's employees are complaining, not just

about the dreadful wages but also the frenetic work schedules,

the job insecurity, and on top of all this, the total absence

of worker's rights.

In 1954 Ray Kroc bought the successful restaurant from

brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, along with the almost

Machiavellian system of operations invented by the two


The brother's system was to divide production into a series of

simple tasks that would turn the kitchen into an assembly

line, eliminating the need for professional chefs. Any fully

functioning person can work in McDonald's because each machine

is specially designed to be operated by anybody after just a

few minutes of training.

Who can't put a few drops of ketchup on thousand of hamburger

buns, by pushing just one button especially designed for the

task? As soon as the worker complains, there is nothing

simpler than replacing him or her with the next job seeker in



When the winds of the labor movement blew through McDonald's,

the company sought the advice of the highly experienced New

York law firm Jackson Lewis, whose specialty is squashing

trade unions. McDonald's also beefed up its security services,

consisting of a group of veteran police officers.

In 1998, 51 of the 62 employees of a McDonald's restaurant in

Saint-Hubert, a district of Montreal, Canada, surprised their

managers by announcing that they had formed a trade union and

demanding the negotiation of a contract that complies with

labor laws.

The next morning, a nasty surprise awaited the young

employees. When they arrived at work they noticed that the

golden arches and everything that represented the McDonald's

branch was gone. During the night the transnational had

completely dismantled the branch, one of the 1,050 that

McDonald's owns in Canada.

In another highly profitable branch on Peel Street, in the

center of Montreal, the 100 workers suspected of trade union

militancy were substituted overnight by 100 new employees.

In other parts of the world, labor laws have meant success for

trade unions created by the burger giant's employees, but

always after prolonged conflict.

Workers on strike in Paris actively participated in the

anti-McDonald's demonstrations, protesting the chain's

anti-trade union attitude and as well as the "job insecurity,

the hellish work schedule and the ridiculous wages."

In October 2000, thousands of protesters surrounded 20

branches in Florence, Italy, denouncing, among other things,

the "atmosphere of intimidation" imposed on the workers by Big

Mac, and the cultural invasion represented by the 272

restaurants countrywide.

In Ireland and Germany trade unions that now have an active

presence on the Internet also triumphed by inviting their

colleagues throughout the world to join them in the

globalization of their trade union movement.

Even in Moscow, the scene of the scrupulously planned

"triumph," golden arch workers are becoming organized, led by

a young worker, Natalia Grachova, in a confrontation that has

gone all the way to the Duma. The Russian legislators

eventually obligated the transnational to negotiate with its

workers, thereby stimulating a new wave of militancy among the

country's trade unions.


The price of its former successes is that McDonald's

successive misfortunes have the habit of attracting media


The attention is such that speculators on the stock market -

traditionally fans of the Big M - have recently started

retreating. The already obvious end to the chain's expansion

in its homeland, mad cow disease slowing hamburger consumption

in Europe - in Lodi, Italy, a case was discovered at the chain

's meat supplier, unleashing panic - and the political

visibility directed at the firm during the new wave of global

protests, has scared even the brand's diehard supporters.

It has been said that to see a nice view in the United States,

one first has to cross the jungle of McDonald's, Burger Kings,

Pizza Huts, KFCs, Starbuck's and the other fast-food chains

that have altered or contaminated the country's appearance.

And the fact is that McDonald's is already being suffocated by

its competition in the very cradle of its success.

In the face of its new "global" rivals, who knows how the

empire's "triumphant" golden arches will survive.

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