Sunday, 8 September 2013


Money#1:Grafik Farm 2013
It came as a surprise to me that fast food strikers were downing tools not only for a better financial deal, but also the right to form worker's collectives without fear of being sacked.

Surprised, because I naively thought that in the 21st century being able to get together with fellow workers to protect your employment terms and conditions was something you could do with impunity?  If we can't, then we have simply returned to the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (19th century). I am betting the Tolpuddle Martyrs (circa 2013) were not on this week's G20 agenda.

I was shocked that employers, even at this stage in our evolution, could act to prevent their fellow human beings from forming groups designed to provide themselves with decent working conditions and revenue streams. Are we really that fossilised?

Being able to form collectives and join unions, for me, is an integral part of democracy and without this option we might as well re-introduce slavery.

Like many I have been following the fast food strikes in the US. Workers in 50 cities or more downed tools late August and came out on the streets in protest at low pay in the service industry - and because they were threatened with dismissal if they formed collectives.

They claim they are being underpaid by the giant chains like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys, Taco Bell et al.

Average salary for a US fast food employee is $8.94 (£5.71) per hour and around 89 per cent of fast food employment is centred around front line staffing ( cashiers, cooks and delivery workers). In the American fast food industry a mere 2.2 per cent of jobs fall within the managerial, professional or technical echelon compared with 31.1 per cent of similar level occupations in the US labour market.

But this is not simply, and it never is, a straightforward wrestle being master and servant, employer and employee, there is always a political element to such debates. A willingness or otherwise by elected politicians to represent and help those who invested them with power.

It's a difficult straddle because that might include Mr Fast Food CEO as well as the man in the baseball cap with three stars who serves them their happy meal on a friday evening or the driver from Papa John's who delivers their family-sized pizza on Saturday afternoon.

Barack Obama and other politicians advocated a raise in minimum wage to $9 (£5.75) per hour, but it hardly generated a ripple of interest among the fast food workers who want a starting price tag of $15 (£9.58).

'Let get real B!'
'Okay, how about $9 and one cent?'

The fast food corporates, of course, have a rigid grimace at paying their employees more. Increased wages, they argue, would lead to higher costs and overheads, all of which would have to be passed onto their burger munching customers.

If you are a free market capitalist this would, of course, mean losing margin advantage. McDonald's profits in 2012 hovered around $5.5 billion (£3.5 billion), and the guys who drive the McDonald's corporate entity, of course, have a legal obligation to maximise profit for their shareholders. But, maybe in the cold light of the 21st century this needs to be tempered with providing people with a decent standard of living?

This takes us into all sorts of philosophical areas related to why we here in the first place ; to flip burgers for meagre wages so that we can go home and just about pay the bills while making sure that the shareholders of the company we work for are paid ever increasing dividends?

McDonalds have also been quick to point out that many of their outlets are franchises and that pay regimes are the sole concern of the individual franchisee. Might franchise owners, however, find it difficult to hire staff if employees can earn $15 (£9.58) per hour at traditionally run McDonald's, Papa Johns, Burger King and so on?

And, lets be honest, as one of my old economics lecturers once told us : 'In capitalism Joe Bloggs and Co are not in business to make corn flakes, jeans, au de cologne or whatever, no matter how good you might think they taste, or no matter how good you think the quality is, in capitalism they are in business to make money. Plain and simple capitalism is all about making greater and greater amounts of cash at a quicker and quicker speed.'

The great economic myth, of course, is that people have an integral part to play in capitalism.

So, if we think that all human existence should be about increasing profit margins at ever accelerating rates (the very essence and spirit of capitalism) then so be it, all unions should be banned and anyone who withdraws their labour for a single second should be open to dismissal. If, on the other hand if we think that being human should be a bit more colourful than simply oiling the wheels of a great cash generating machine, then we desperately need to re-think our financial world and how it is organised and operated and how wealth is distributed.

Since the 2008 financial collapse there is a growing sense of injustice and inequality and people are beginning to understand how that impacts all our lives.  There is, in this catastrophe, a wonderful opportunity to start talking about and re-aligning our social, economic and political universe to the benefit of the majority.

In the generation of cash within capitalism there are ALWAYS three major players, employers, governments and the general public and they should be talking to each other going forward on an equal platform.

Working people should be able to have a quality of life that provides them with the comforts of being alive.

Or maybe I have this wrong and working and life is simply about paying the bills in an existentional vacuum where any other considerations are jettisoned so that capitalism can clank ever onward gobbling up ever increasing mountains of money at an ever accelerating rate...

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