McSux: taking on the corporate giant

April 14, 1999


McSux: taking on the corporate giant

By Huw Lockwood and Kim Bullimore

British activists Helen Steel and David Morris, who have been fighting the fast food giant McDonald's since they were sued for libel for producing the "What's wrong with McDonald's?" leaflet 12 years ago, won a victory on March 31.

Lord Justices Pill, May and Keane, who heard the "McLibel" appeal case, upheld most of the original verdict against the activists but ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees were poorly paid and that a diet of McDonald's food is high in fat, leading to the risk of heart disease.

The McLibel appeal began in January. The original trial, the longest in English history, concluded in favour of McDonald's in June 1997. Steel and Morris were denied legal aid and their right to a jury trail. Justice Bell ruled that McDonald's advertising strategy "exploited children" and that the company was responsible for animal cruelty but that Steel and Morris were unable to prove their case to a satisfactory degree. They were ordered to pay £60,000 in damages.

The appeal judges reduced damages to £40,000. However, the judges rejected Steel and Morris' request that multinational corporations should no longer be able to sue for libel over issues of public interest. Steel and Morris intend to appeal this to the House of Lords and then, if necessary, take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights.

Only McDonald's

McDonald's aim of suppressing the "What's Wrong with McDonald's?" leaflet has spectacularly backfired. More than 3 million copies have been handed out in Britain since the writs were served on Steel and Morris, including 400,000 on the weekend after the verdict.

The leaflet discussed Third World hunger, environmentalism, health, animal deaths, staff exploitation and censorship. It pointed out the inefficiency of meat as a food source (cattle are fed seven kilograms of grain for every one kilogram of meat produced).

The McSpotlight (<>) web site, set up in support of Steel and Morris, has been visited more than 65 million times.

The trial was a political defeat for McDonald's. Witnesses exposed McDonald's activities. An actor who played the Ronald McDonald clown apologised for his past actions: "I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong".

Den Fujita, McDonald's president in Japan, was quoted during the trial as saying: "The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2000 years. If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin white and our hair blond."

Dr Sidney Arnott, McDonald's expert witness on cancer, agreed that the statement, "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals [describing the nutritional value of McDonald's], is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease", was correct.

McDonald's success is its marketing. Anywhere in the world, a McDonald's hamburger has a diameter of 3.875, and its bun is 3.5 inches across (to give the impression that the burger is bursting out).

McDonald's aims to corner the world market in fast food by making "burger" synonymous with McDonald's. Alistair Fairgrieve, McDonald's UK marketing services manager, said, "It is our objective to dominate the communications area ... because we are competing for a share of the customer's mind".

Profit time around the world

McDonald's is one of the largest employers of young people in the world. In Britain, McDonald's refuses to pay overtime even when staff work more than 96 hours a fortnight. Managers have the power, while staff are working their scheduled shift, to cut or extend the hours worked.

The crew handbook states: "On occasions you may be asked to continue working past your normal finishing time. You will be released as soon as the need for your service has passed." Even meal breaks can be reduced. In any event, staff are not paid for meal breaks.

McDonald's workers in Britain can increase their pay rates by passing "performance reviews". Company documents revealed that in order to obtain a five pence an hour rise, a "crew" member would have to score at least 76% during their performance review, 87% for a 10 pence rise and 93.5% for a 15 pence rise. The guideline for attaining 87% or over is that employee "performance consistently exceeds job requirements and expectations".

In 1992, the manager of a British store was jailed for six months for inducing a crew member to phone a bomb threat to a nearby Burger King in order to boost sales at McDonald's.

The McLibel campaign has highlighted McDonald's terrible record. But similar cases could be mounted against Coca-Cola, Coles, Nike and hundreds of other major capitalist companies.

Many who are aware of McDonald's record call for a boycott of McDonald's. While boycotting may reduce an individual's chance of getting cancer, mass movements directed not only at McDonald's but at the system which allows corporations to get away with exploitation of workers, the environment and children are needed.

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