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Can Fast-Food Work Ever Be A Decent Job? These Swedish McDonald’s Workers Say Yes

What can a union do for low-wage workers? Comparing the lives of McDonald’s workers in Chicago and Sweden shows the difference organizing can make.

Can Fast-Food Work Ever Be A Decent Job? These Swedish McDonald’s Workers Say Yes
[Top Photo: Flickr user Håkan Dahlström]

“Life is pretty hard right now,” says KeJioun Johnson, a 20-year-old, part-time McDonald’s cashier who lives with his single mom (a part-time bus driver) in government-subsidized housing in Chicago. Six months ago he was hired at the fast-food chain, at a location 90 minutes away from his house on the city’s public rail line. He started working 25 to 28 hours per week at $8.25 per hour. After federal and state withholdings, he was taking home about $200 per week. On July 1, the minimum wage in Chicago was officially raised to $10 per hour. Johnson thought his finances, at the very least, might begin to show small signs of improvement. He might be able to start making plans to attend community college. He could try to figure out how to escape the projects, in a neighborhood which, he says, “I would not want to raise my kid in if I had kids.” Instead, his boss drastically cut his hours to eight per week: with a take-home pay of only $72.50 per week.

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When Johnson asked if he could get more hours, his boss explained that the location was over staffed. Johnson waited and asked again. “The next excuse was ‘Well, I will see what I can do for you, increasingly you will be getting your days back,’ but that turned out to be a false promise for two and a half months now.”

Johnson had no recourse. If he didn’t want the job, someone else would take it. And because there is no fast-food worker union with a collective bargaining agreement, there was no one powerful enough to fight his boss’ improper and unjust scheduling practices.

Meet Bassem and Mohamed

The 37-year-old Bassem Majid, a war refuge from Lebanon, has been working for the last 15 years at a Swedish McDonald’s, where he is currently a shift leader. He is a married father of an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. His wife works part time evenings as a healthcare aid to the elderly. The Majid’s live in a decent-sized, three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in a safe and clean neighborhood in Stockholm. They own a 2011 Volkswagen Passat.

Their kids go to a first-rate public school. Their neighborhood has a good amount of greenery throughout and includes a nearby forest-like park and playgrounds. There is very little crime. They have plans to purchase a townhouse in the not-too-distant future. Last summer, Majid traveled abroad to visit with some close relatives who live in McKinney, Texas.

Majid’s McDonald’s job is 60% of his full-time, 40-hours-a-week work life. Through collective bargaining agreements between McDonald’s and the local hotel and restaurant union (called the HRF), which represents fast-food workers, he is allowed to work the other 40% as an elected union organizer. Swedish labor laws maintain that he must work for the union and McDonald’s at the exact same pay, so he is paid by both McDonald’s and the HRF equally, at about $16 per hour.

“I think we have decent and average living conditions,” he says. “We don’t have the luxury of visiting fancy restaurants often, but sometimes we do. We do not have any outstanding loans or debt.”

Majid’s co-worker, 34-year-old Mohammed Marifa Bah, is a native of Sierra Leone who emigrated to Sweden in 2007. He has been working at McDonald’s for seven years, currently as a restaurant assistant, meaning he can work at any station in the entire facility, including the kitchen. He works the night shift, earning a little more than $14.50 per hour. He too works 60% for McDonald’s and 40% for the local HRF as a union organizer.

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Marifa Bah lives in a three bedroom, 1.5 bath apartment in a suburb of Stockholm that he shares with two roommates. He takes a 30-minute train ride to work each night.

“I enjoy my work for the moment,” he says. “I have decent health insurance and other benefits. In Sweden, you live within your means, and what the government does for you is very great. Everyone has enough for basic living conditions. My salary can do a lot for me.” He adds that he has a savings account and is able to afford Internet access at his apartment. As a union organizer, Majid is devoted to equal rights for all. “I am an activist,” he says. “I am someone who likes politics. There is always something more you can do.”

Scandinavian Safety Nets

In addition to being protected by the HRF, all of the socially democratic Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, along with the “Nordic” country of Finland) provide free college tuition, extensive family leave benefits, free healthcare, livable retirement income, substantial unemployment insurance and paid sick leave, along with decent housing benefits to all its citizens, subsidized through high taxes. Majid and Marifa Bah pay a 30% income tax, compared to less than 9% total of federal and state withholdings that come out of KeJioun’s pay check.

What’s the relative payoff for considerably less taxes? Here’s an example: In Johnson’s below-the-poverty-level life and job arrangements, getting sick would leave him with zero income, because he does not get any paid sick leave from McDonald’s. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor does not require employers to provide paid sick leave.

In Sweden, as noted on its Labour Market “Work in Sweden” website, which highlights all of the country’s social benefits, anyone with a Swedish personal identity number who is also registered with the Swedish Social Insurance Agency is entitled to 13 days of 80-percent-paid sick leave starting after one’s first day of employment.

Opportunities and Rights for Everyone

Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, compares the status of fast-food workers in the U.S. to manufacturing plant workers during the early 20th century. These workers were “paid abysmal wages, but they had incredibly active unions over many decades that eventually forced employers to produce benefits and pay better wages, cover healthcare costs, cover pensions and so on—that has not happened yet in the fast-food industry.”

Sweden’s HRF has been active and effective at securing the rights of hotel and restaurant employees since 1918. “The trade union works hard for its members,” Marifa Bah says. “We argue for better conditions, and I stand for solidarity and the rights of equal opportunity for every human to have a good job and decent living conditions. We have to stand for each other’s rights.”

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“Through the union we can negotiate our salaries,” Majid says. “I am aware of the economic situation of fast-food workers in the USA. It makes me very sad to think about how they struggle even when they work full-time. They should at least have some security if something happened to them. Here in Sweden, if something happened to me, if I became sick, I know somebody is there to take care of my family.”

Johnson does not have that kind of security. But that does not mean he and others like him will not eventually get it. KeJioun is currently an enthusiastic member of the relatively young but rapidly growing Fight for $15 movement that has been making significant headway through organized protests in major cities across the nation to ultimately get low wage workers unionized along with a raise to $15 per hour. He has participated in several protests through the Chicago-based Fight for $15 campaign, including one at the Oak Brook, Illinois McDonald’s headquarters and another in Detroit, Michigan.

“Ten dollars per hour is not a comfort zone I want to be in,” Johnson says.
Even at $15 per hour, however, Johnson would be facing relatively severe financial challenges. If, for instance, he got his 28 hours per week back at that wage, he would be grossing $420 and netting, after federal and state withholdings, about $336 per week. If he were to strike out on his own, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment outside of Chicago’s city center is a little less than $1,000 a month, according to Numbeo, a listing of user-contributed data about cost of living in cities around the world. That would equal more than a total of 65% of his total monthly take home pay. Financial advisors generally recommend that no more than 30% of monthly income go towards rent. In short, Johnson would at the very least need the customary 40 hours per week, even at a living wage.

“I think the Fight for 15 movement and the various living wage movements around the country have put a spotlight not only on fast-food workers, but also on janitors and housekeepers and other low wage employees,” Abramsky says. “Among politically aware circles this is more of an issue now than it was three or four years ago.”

Will it actually happen? “I feel a sort of optimism by default in that the situation is so untenable in so many states that by default there is this move to increase the minimum wage to something that more resembles a living wage,” Abramsky adds. “It is not going to happen federally. There is just no momentum in Washington. It probably is going to happen in a couple dozen states and many big cities. You are going to have $15 as the moral norm. It might not be the legal norm, but it is going to become the moral norm.”

Johnson would obviously agree. “Fight for $15 is the best thing I could join,” he says. “I feel like being part of this movement is being part of history, because when the minimum wage goes up to $15 per hour, I can say I was a part of it, that I did not just sit down and watch it happen.”

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