In July 2015 Bleu Rainer, a twenty-six-year-old McDonald's worker in Tampa, Florida, opened his mail and found an invitation to testify before the Brazilian Senate. "I was kind of shocked," he laughs.
McDonald's workers in Brazil had filed charges of wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and violations of Brazil's labor laws. This moved the Senate Human Rights Commission to convene an unprecedented hearing. Their goal was to determine if McDonald's, with operations in more than a hundred countries, was driving down wages and eroding safety conditions worldwide.
So they invited fast-food workers from the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia to testify about Brazil's and the worlds second-largest private employer.
On August 16, 2015, Rainer and colleagues from the Philippines, Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and many other countries came to tell their stories. They were greeted by cheering crowds at the Brasilia airport.
"People from different unions and politicians from all over Brazil and all over the globe were coming to talk about how McDonald's tries to keep us at the bottom," Rainer recalls. "It was amazing. Because McDonald's has employees everywhere, everything they do has a global impact that affects all workers."
Rainer's life had been marked by starvation wages, uncertain scheduling, and boiling oil. "In eight years, I made no more than eight dollars and five cents an hour. I witnessed the torture of not having enough to afford rent, which led to me sleeping from house to house. I even had to sleep at bus stops because I was homeless." Some nights, he went without food, when his food stamps ran out.
"I'm working so hard every day," he thought. "Why am I not making a living wage? Why can't I feed myself? Why am I still hungry?"
Though Rainer had already joined the fight for a living wage, he experienced moments in Brazil that opened his eyes. "I met this really cool guy from Japan, another McDonald's worker. He showed me his arm full of burns." Rainer raised his arm and held it out. The men were burned in the same places. Stripes. Rainer knew how his colleague had been scarred.
"They make you get orders out in ninety seconds," he explains. "You're constantly behind. So, you're not thinking about safety. You're worried that your manager is going to push you." A chill passed through him when he saw the matching burns. The men had more in common than their injuries. "Me and him have the exact same story," Rainer learned as they talked.
Both had enrolled in college but had to drop out. "He wasn't earning enough to pay tuition and neither was I." Rainer felt the pieces fall into place. When Benedict Murillo, from Manila, heard the men's stories, he rolled up his sleeves and held out his arms. He had the same burns. He also had left college because he couldn't pay tuition. Their skin colors, languages, and backgrounds were different, Murillo says. Still the three were, in Murillo's view, "McBrothers"--members of the new global working class.
Later, when Murillo told the story in a union hall in Quezon City in the Philippines, fast-food workers placed their arms on the table--fist-to-fist like spokes in a wheel. Identical lines of burns scored each arm.
At the hearing in Brasilia, Rainer heard testimony from a worker in Seoul, South Korea, who...