The online world often feels fractious. Of course it is: it’s a platform for anyone to air whatever they choose, and not everyone is going to agree. In the UK, the seemingly endless surge of elections saw clear divides in political affiliation. Now, it feels like there’s a different kind of division and it’s along class lines.
Stories of the little guy standing up to corporations have been all over my timeline this week. Service staff, tired of shitty conditions, are finally making their voices heard and- it has to be said- I’m lovin’ it.
In three English franchises, McDonald’s workers made history earlier in the week, as the first of its staff to go on strike. The move was in response to cuts in hours, meaning its staff are scraping a living on basic wage. Staff also had larger demands, such as a £10 per hour minimum wage, an end to zero hour contracts (which I’ve discussed on this very blog) and the right to unionise to discuss terms of employment.
In Glasgow, on the 30th of August, ten members of bar staff in Ashton Lane’s The Grosvenor found themselves unceremoniously booted out of a job. Their crime? “Over-using” their staff discount on colleagues’ food orders. The discount amounts ranged from £1.89 to £30. The bar’s parent group raked in £66.6 million in revenue last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Grosvenor is owned by The G1 Group, whose name is impossible to say without sounding like you’re choking down a dry, fart flavoured biscuit.
Over the years the G1 Group have come under fire for numerous heinous acts: famously their Shimmy Club venue installed a two way mirror in the women’s toilets, wherein men could pay to watch from a room on the other side. Yeaaahh. They also relaunched a bar in their flagship Corinthian venue as The Cotton Club: a tasteful homage to the famous whites-only club in Prohibition-era Harlem which had a code of conduct for black performers and openly promoted segregation.
The case of the Grosvenor 10 brought the group’s mistreatment of staff back into the mainstream. Only two years ago they were under fire from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for paying below the minimum wage. You’d think they would’ve learned a lesson. Last week’s actions were a handy reminder that they haven’t learned shit. The case was picked up by campaigners Better Than Zero, who aim to end pay poverty and exploitative zero hour contracts. The group’s online petition is hurtling towards its goal of 3,000 signatures (you can add yours here). Zero hour contracts are a topic of great personal interest to me, and I for one am backing Better Than Zero all the way.
So far, so good, yes? I mean, who could possibly refuse basic rights to service industry staff, pretty much the backbone of our leisure time?
As it turns out… quite a lot of people. A quick scroll through #McStrike on Twitter is pretty revealing. A choice cut of opinions includes “they shouldn’t be allowed to strike”, “I don’t get £10, why should they?” and the ubiquitous “why don’t they get a real job?”. I’ve had this one lauded at me before and, to date, I’m still unsure what a ‘real job’ is. An office job? A teaching or nursing job? Something in the creative industries?
It’s an awful, snobbish, middle class term that no one seems to have an answer to- but still like to mock working class people anyway. Therein lies the other side of the aforementioned class divide.
Twitter went into meltdown (again) over a throwaway Instagram story from nobody artist Hetty Douglas. I’m not going to share the screengrab, but basically Douglas had taken a snap of men in workie gear, in a McDonald’s queue, with the caption “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE”. Social media users leapt upon it, branding her comments snobby and classist and tearing down her (admittedly terrible) artwork. Even by today’s standards it got out of hand fast. Douglas is not the cause of the problem, she’s just a product of it. We’ve seen them before: the middle class students at good universities, who very probably went to good schools. They dress like 90s TV presenters, grow out their roots and live in grotty flats, because it’s cool.
The working class aesthetic, the idea of poverty safari, is intrinsic with gentrification. People like these are symptomatic of something we don’t like to address. Class society is very real in Britain. It never really went away. People like the idea of being working class, of dressing a certain way and thinking it’s bants to hang out in a Wetherspoons or McDonald’s. When actual working class people want rights though? That’s when the real colours come out. Not to draw crude comparisons but it’d be remiss not to mention the Munroe Bergdorf story and its subsequent outcry. White people across the internet were aghast at being called ‘racist’, and lashed out in the face of uncomfortable home truths. The fact is, Bergdorf’s sacking on the tail of her comments only serve to prove her point. White people are only outraged at racism when it’s directed at them, and those who celebrated in her sacking did so because it meant a woman of colour was being put in her place.
We should be cheering on the staff striking for fair pay, or campaigning for job stability. After all, they do physically demanding work with little or no thanks. Who are you to call strikers ‘lazy’ because they want assurance that they’ll have money to keep a roof over their head? Why should service staff not receive fair pay for the job they do, just because it’s not what you’d deem a ‘real’ job? If they’re on a zero hour contract they don’t have fixed hours, or sick pay. Hell, the lamest excuse I got for losing my job was asking for Sundays off because I’d worked every one for nearly a year. We demand a lot from our service industry staff. We want fast, efficient, friendly and courteous service. Apparently, though, we don’t really care about the people behind it. It’s cool to dress in a certain aesthetic, but god forbid actual working class people should make themselves visible.
Whether you agree with Douglas or not, the responses to her stupid comment have been intense. Much like Ellie Harrison’s much-maligned Glasgow Effect, her work, lifestyle, demeanour and background have been torn apart. The truth is that we don’t need these people to remind us of our intrinsically classist society. We live it every time we pour scorn on minimum wage workers for daring to ask for the same stability and rights afforded to everyone else.