"MacDonald’s is a Happy Place !"- Robin Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class
I really believed that slogan when I began working there in 1978. For many of us employed at the central Pasadena franchise, Mickey D’s actually meant food, folks, and fun, though our main objective was funds. Don’t get me wrong; the work was tiring and the polyester uniforms unbearable. The swing managers, who made slightly more than the rank-and-file, were constantly on our ass to move fast and smile more frequently. The customers treated us as if we were stupid, probably because 90 percent of the employees at our franchise were African Americans or Chicanos from poor families. But we found inventive ways to compensate. Like virtually all of my fellow workers, I liberated McDonaldland cookies by the boxful, volunteered to clean “lots and lobbies” in order to talk to my friends, and accidentally cooked too many Quarter Pounders and apple pies near closing time, knowing full well that we could take home whatever was left over. Sometimes we (mis)used the available technology to our advantage. Back in our day, the shakes did not come ready mixed. We had to pour the frozen shake mix from the shake machine into a paper cup, add flavored syrup, and place it on an electric blender for a couple of minutes. If it was not attached correctly, the mixer blade would cut the sides of the cup and cause a disaster. While these mishaps slowed us down and created a mess to clean up, anyone with an extra cup handy got a little shake out of it. Because we were underpaid and overworked, we accepted consumption as just compensation – though in hindsight eating Big Macs and fries to make up for low wages and mistreatment was probably closer to self-flagellation.
That we were part of the “working class” engaged in workplace struggles never crossed our minds, in part because the battles that were dear to most of us and the strategies we adopted fell outside the parameters of what most people think of as a traditional “labor disputes.” I’ve never known anyone at our McDonald‘s to argue about wages; rather, some of us occasionally asked our friends to punch our time cards before we arrived, especially if we were running late. And no one to my knowledge demanded that management extend our break; we simply operated on “CP” (colored people’s) time, turning fifteen minutes into twenty-five. What we fought over were more important things like what radio station to play. The owner and some of the managers felt bound to easy listening; we turned to stations like K-DAY on AM and K-ACE on the FM dial so we could rock to the funky sounds of Rick James, Parliament, Heatwave, The Ohio Players, and – yes – Michael Jackson. Hair was perhaps the most contested battleground. Those of us without closely cropped cuts were expected to wear hairnets, and we were simply not having it. Of course, the kids who identified with the black and Chicano gangs of the late seventies had no problem with this rule since they wore hairnets all the time. But to net one’s gheri curl, a lingering Afro, a freshly permed doo was outrageous. We fought those battles with amazing tenacity – and won most of the time. We even attempted to alter our ugly uniforms by opening buttons, wearing our hats tilted to the side, rolling up our sleeves a certain way, or adding a variety of different accessories.
Nothing was sacred, not even the labor process. We undoubtedly had our share of slowdowns and deliberate acts of carelessness, but what I remember most was the way many of us stylized our work. We ignored the films and manuals and turned work into performance. Women on the cash register maneuvered effortlessly with long, carefully manicured nails and four finger rings. Tossing trash became an opportunity to try out our best Dr. J moves. The brothers who worked the grill (it was only brothers from what I recall) were far more concerned with looking cool than ensuring an equal distribution of reconstituted onions on each all beef patty. Just imagine a young black male ‘gangsta limpin’ between the toaster and the grill, brandishing a spatula like a walking stick or a microphone. And while all of this was going on, folks were signifying on one another, talking loudly about each other’s mommas, daddys, boyfriends, girlfriends, automobiles (or lack thereof), breath, skin color, uniforms; on occasion describing in hilarious detail the peculiarities of customers standing on the other side of the counter. Such chatter often drew in the customers, who found themselves entertained or offended – or both – by our verbal circus and collective dialogues.