My Time As A McDonalds Worker: A Symbol of What is Wrong With American Capitalism

When teachers ask children questions of career, I doubt a single one has ever answered: “I want to roll grease drums to a shed in the post-midnight hours of the evening for minimum wage!” Despite their protestations of the negative connotations of “Mcjob”, McDonalds truly is a bottom feeding grease asylum that few enjoy working at.  Long hours, small wages, no room for human autonomy, using people like so many disposable rags,  McDonalds represents most things wrong with low end employment.

So how does someone end up in McPurgatory?  Desperation typically.  Jobs like this are predators, taking advantage of the binds a lopsided economy puts on many working people.  People find themselves in need of a job, any job, even if its the drear of hourly wages, and fries more chemical than potato.  It is minimum wage hell or lose a home and go hungry.  These places tend to be so miserable, I doubt anyone would work there, if not faced with such an ultimatum.

The true face of unemployment sometimes becomes obscured in the abstract jargon of economics. Yet unemployment for me became the norm, and not for lack of trying. From the metropolitan malls to the mom & pop stores of my small town, the help wanted signs disappeared.  No one seemed hiring, and when they were, wanted to ask the world of the worker while giving little in return. Driving the highway, putting my application in every place that would take it, the golden arches always loomed mockingly. I knew I could work there.  I just thought I could do better.  After I heard the “no” from every place else in town, it was with defeated slump, that I finally walked in the McDonalds doors and filled out their application.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” Dante thought that a fitting inscription above the gates of hell.  The Gaslight Anthem singer figured it should be on a plaque above his girlfriends bed.  I’ll go ahead and appropriate the slogan too, and say it should headline a McDonalds contract.

My assigned shifts were the graveyard hours and unloading the truck. Showing up at midnight in my company issued black slacks and red M shirt, I began. The first thing that struck me is how ingeniously engineered of a machine McDonalds is. Everything operates according to procedure, there’s no room at all for human autonomy or error.  You don’t ever actually cook anything at McDonalds.  You just get it from the freezer and insert it in the right machine, whether its the McGrill, McOven, McQ, or McFryer,  take it out and put it in a heat tray when the machine starts beeping.

Everything you do in McDonalds is monitored and reported to HQ. All the machines are constantly sending time tables, chronicling how long any given task took to be completed. If its not up to snuff, a chain of bitching ensues. HQ calls the regional manager, regional manager calls general manager, general manager gives the assistant managers a come to jesus speech, and the assistant managers take it out on the crew members. Time, time, time, and the dreaded “we’re not meeting goal”, always hang like driver’s lash above the plodding oxen.

Night shift is the worst, full of grit and grime no one else wanted to handle. Tasks like folding frozen egg mix into 150 tortillas, disassembling all the fryers and various condiment dispensers, washing off the cakes of grease. The anticlimax among many unpleasant moments of Mcdonalds nights is emptying the grease traps and changing the clam shell grill over for breakfast.

The clam shell looks like its namesake, featuring two hot surfaces, top and bottom. You press the top clamp onto burgers, sausage, bacon, whatever you’re frying, and it will beep when the item is cooked. It usually burns you while you are trying to grab the rods to put on the proper covering to cook the breakfast items. It is hard to empty the grease traps into their radioactive waste looking barrels, without getting grease all over yourself, and the floor. After filling a barrel, you take it on the roller to the trash corral.

The trash corral is perhaps the most revolting aspect of McDonalds, or at least the particular one I worked at.  I was disgusted with McDonalds output of waste. There are six dumpsters out back. Most will be filled with cardboard, paper and plastic every day. What’s so disgusting is, its all material very easily recyclable.  We’re talking plastic containers, many many cardboard boxes, stacks of paper, paper cups, paper bags, wrapping paper.  Six dumpsters full of it go the dump every other day, just because McDonalds can’t be fucked to take time to recycle.

Truck was by far the best, and the only somewhat tolerable part of working for McDonalds. It is just an unloading and stocking job. First, you get this roller device and hook it to the side door of the truck. Then, the driver sends the packages, milk, shake mix, pickles, apple turnovers, fries, burgers, down the ramp, and you take it and put it in its specific place. First stocking a room that’s like a big refrigerator, then stocking a room that’s like a giant freezer. After that, you rotate the various types of hamburger buns in and out and move over to dry storage. There, the McCafe stuff, various condiments, cups, and boxes go. A bunch of toting and carrying, and you never have to be up front, in the grease vapors, getting yelled at because drive through isn’t being served quick enough.

If that sounds like a lot work in unpleasant conditions, it is, and for not much pay.  Being a McDonalds worker, your feet are always sore, the back always aches.  The pay is so small you have to work a ton of shifts to make anything at all, which leads to life becoming a cycle between work and tiredness.  Most fast food, most chain restaurants, most chain stores, most customer service oriented jobs and most low wage labor, tend to be massively exploitative.  Mcdonalds is a huge culprit of this scheme. Personally, I’d like raise the minimum wage in America up to about $23 an hour and unionize every single one of these businesses.   The wage would then be more proportionate to the work, and perhaps the working conditions would become more tolerable.

Another Mcdonalds employee milestone I participated in was the inevitable resignation.  Nearly everyone’s tolerance for such a job gets exhausted at some point.  Rare is the person who can put up with such a job for years. Such menial jobs also seem to attract some real assholes to their positions of power. The tyrants of the micro-fiefdom are sometimes as bad as the ones who abuse authority on a large scale.  Management seems to view everyone as expendable, replaceable tools. My first confrontation with management was over my hair. It went something like this:

Manager: We need to talk about your hair.
Me: Ok.
Manager: Its gonna be a problem.
Me: I keep it braided and under a hair net while at work, so what’s the problem?
Manager: Its just not really becoming of a male on the mcdonalds staff.
Me: I wasn’t aware McDonalds gets to decide what is “becoming” of me.  Many males in my culture traditionally have long hair.
Manager: What’s more important, your job or your politics?

He wrote up several disciplinary reports on me. It became apparent the manager had a problem with Native Americans, like many in the abandoned railroad towns outlying the reservation. The extent of the managers prejudices didn’t really show itself though, until a few weeks later. Another Native who worked there forgot his hat one day. Instead of let him wear one of the hundred they have in the back, as was normal when someone forgot something, the manager told the guy to wear a bag over his head.

The final authority abuse occurred while I was on the night shift. Things were proceeding as normal, I was washing utensils, when the manager paid the crew a surprise visit.  A few minutes later, he came storming back from a trip to the bathroom saying “The bathroom smells like doobie!”

Only three of us working, it had to be me, the other guy, or the night supervisor, responsible for the bathroom dope smell.  Never mind that the other guy had just took a forty minute bathroom break and returned red eyed, I knew I’d take the fall. The other guy and the night supervisor were good buddies, drove each other to and from work. I didn’t stand a chance. I kept maintaining, “we could all piss in a cup, and we’ll see who’s smoking doobie in the bathroom. Sure won’t be me.” But that never happened.  The manager never accused me, but huddled and spoke in hushed tones with the other guy and the night supervisor. Nothing happened, ostensibly. Yet I was quietly phased out. Hours cut from about thirty a week to two directly after the bathroom doobie event.  That is when I had enough, turned in my resignation, and began the job search anew.

Mcdonalds truly is the avatar of evil corporations who don’t give a shit about their employees, or how their business affects anything environmental or ethical. Everything bad you heard about them is probably true, and then some. Maybe you’re like I used to be and think “surely it can’t be as terrible as the hype.” Yet it’s much worse. Horrible food, whose making is overseen by some horrible managers, then served by over exploited people just trying to make their buck.

Do ethical business and quality products a favor, and ignore the golden arches next time you drive by.  Do the same to any business built on the entrapment and exploitation of the working class.


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