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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
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
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.
THE NEW ASTERIX
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
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.
A FEW DROPS OF KETCHUP
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
A NASTY SURPRISE
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
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
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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