Jerusalem—Malac Ammar, 21, was happy when she started work at the McDonald’s near her home in Akko, northern Israel, four years ago. She had responsibilities and money, and she soon rose to become shift manager at the branch, where her sister and friends also worked.
McDonald’s is Israel’s biggest fast-food chain, with over 180 branches, and the country’s largest employer of those under 25. About half of its workers are, like Ammar, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens. The McDonald’s Israel franchise is owned by businessman Omri Padan, one of the founders of the venerable liberal group Peace Now. Padan has refused to open McDonald’s branches in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and his shops are praised as a place where Arab Israelis, who face significant institutional discrimination, can find employment and better their Hebrew.
But, as often is the case in Israel, politics and economics here are two different stories.
When McDonald’s Israel workers started to unionize in 2013, demanding better wages, hours, and other workplace protections, management actively tried to stop it. A year later, Padan called off plans to sign a collective-bargaining agreement at the last hour. Workers around the country, Ammar included, then organized strikes. She and her co-workers closed their McDonald’s for just one hour—they didn’t want to be too disruptive, she said. That was until police, without evidence, accused her of terrorism and of intentionally trying to burn the branch down… because she had left the restaurant’s grill on during the strike.
Around Israel, unionizing has been on the rise since the passage of new pro-labor laws in 2009 and 2013, and especially since the massive 2011 social-justice protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against growing inequality and the high cost of living. But at McDonald’s, unionizing efforts remain deferred. Meanwhile, its local Israeli rival, Burger Ranch, welcomed in 2013 a collective-bargaining agreement—and promised to open branches in West Bank settlements after McDonald’s refused.
The McDonald’s case exemplifies the complicated space the labor movement navigates in Israel, where elections are usually won based on who is viewed as the most pro-security—an argument the extreme right is increasingly dominating—while all major Israeli parties are largely aligned on the same pro-capitalist and neoliberal lines. It’s also a reminder of the political roles that fast-food franchises play around the world—and the challenges this presents in the fight for workers’ rights.