Occupy Hartee’s: disposable reflections on fast food history

The score so far: Ronald McDonald – 1, Tecoma – 0. The bulldozers moved in last week after the last protester was cherry-picked off the roof. The store, likely to service hundreds of thousands of Melbourne weekenders, may still be built in the face of entrenched community opposition – but only inside a cordon of police unheard of out in Puffing Billy-land.

There have been tons of anti-McDonalds direct action campaigns over the years – Katoomba, Pascoe Vale, the Barossa Valley. Some have succeeded, others haven’t. Many have heard of the famous McLibel Case, or seen Super Size Me, or heard of stores closed for lack of interest. Less well known is Australia’s first pro-fast-food direct action episode, which was in response to the closure of Hartee’s, the original Australian-owned (albeit US-inspired) fast food franchise, in 1975.

The first Hartee’s store opened in 1970 in Belfield, when Kelloggs did a deal with US franchise Hardee’s to roll out a hundred branded burgers ‘n shakes restaurants across Australia. They didn’t quite reach the target; five years later, garbage men tipped off Channel 7’s eponymous Willesee current affairs program to large quantities of Chum tins in the Bankstown store’s dumpsters. Chum’s slogan, ‘So chumpy you can carve it′, turned out to be on the money (and in the burger patties). The brand was crippled and never recovered.

(Michael Wayne’s excellent blog Past Lives of the Near Future gives a much more detailed account of the Chum scandal.)

The archived Sydney Morning Herald report from the time makes for fascinating reading. The managers of the seventeen stores – five in Sydney, two in Wollongong, two in Newcastle, and eight in Melbourne – didn’t hear about the closure until the company called a special general meeting. Hartee’s had been trading at a loss of over $900,000 by December 1973 and bled money until the stores were closed down in 1975. Three hundred workers lost their jobs across the whole chain.

What’s remarkable is that at the Mayfield store workers ‘Occupied Hartee’s’. They raised $30,000 towards the $170,000 needed to buy out the business:

In Sydney, the manager of one store offered to take over the stock and, with his workers, go without pay to try and make the business profitable.

Mr P Alexandroff, one of 28 workers being dismissed at the Mayfield branch, said they intended to see a solicitor about opening a trust account and the feasibility of forming a co-operative or a public company.

The company is understood to be unwilling to sell the restaurant to the workers and wants to sell the 17 restaurants individually later.

A visit to Wayne’s blog shows the uses to which the stores are now being put and the significant nostalgia surrounding the chain. But who could imagine McDonald’s ever attracting that level of loyalty or nostalgia? As a business, McDonald’s can’t permit the drudgery that’s been the cliché since Kevin Smith flicks like Mallrats or Clerks; working inside the machine has itself become ‘gamified’ in some sense. Young workers will – with the help of their obliging union ­­­– take McJobs even if the pay and conditions are awful. As Royle and Towers write in Labour Relations In The Global Fast Food Industry:

Our interview data from former fast-food MNC employees are paradoxical. While they accept it is low-paid and arduous, they generally found the experience socially rewarding. Fast food employment clearly has an emotive side associated with the social relations at work, convenient hours and accessible income.

McDonalds knows they’ll win the economic argument – there’s always money in the Banana Stand – so they go to painstaking lengths to neutralise the ability of locals to mount an action based on a change to social relations or the built environment. The Tecoma action follows a classic model: Maccas has been lobbying Yarra Valley Council for years, making the economic case, trying to manufacture the appearance of a ‘social license to operate’, as the anti-fracking guys like to say. When that failed and the council rejected the application in late 2011, McDonalds appealed to VCAT and had the locals’ objections overturned.

The site McSpotlight lists other campaigns where a similar long game was played. The secret deal by the Libs to get a McDonalds built near Sydney’s Moore Park, on the corner of ANZAC Parade and Lang Road is one such brazen episode. It began in 1994–5 and was still being resolved half a decade later.

In the final days of the Fahey Government, Liberal Environment Minister Chris Hartcher (now Resources Minister under Barry O’Farrell) signed a secret contract with Maccas for the site. The license was valid as far as the courts were concerned, and would have attracted a serious payout if the government revoke it. The Hansard from 1999 is worth quoting at length for a laugh:

Mr CARR: Like other members of the House I was concerned yesterday to see the report in the press about the court decision and its implications.

Mr Hartcher: Get on with it, you clown. Get on with it!

Mr CARR: Of all the people to interject in a whisper, why would it have be the member for Gosford, who was Minister for the Environment in the previous Government when he did nothing less than enter into a secret agreement to plant a McDonald’s right on the edge of Centennial Park? That is about all we get out of them these days because they are such a lazy mob.

Mr CARR: What a pathetic performance! … Is there any doubt about whose pawprints were on the deed of consent? In June 1995 ­–

Mr Hartcher: Because I want kids to be able to eat McDonald’s.

Mr CARR: […] This will go on, the truth will come out. The Stasi are bringing down the file on the Centennial Park development and it will be laid on the table of the House.

Then-MLC Lee Rhiannon spoke on the issue in NSW Parliament a few months later:

[I]t is abundantly clear to all who cherish urban green space that outlets such as McDonald’s and Burger King would irreparably degrade the special values of this land and should be explicitly prohibited. These types of commercial operations, by their nature, contradict the sense of serenity and reflection that the trust lands so uniquely offer … Franchise operations, by definition, replicate a model. They lack unique character. They cannot focus on the special values of the trust lands.

Clover Moore, who campaigned hard against the development, wrote at the time: ‘Moore Park has faced continual alienation and degradation and must not be further appropriated for an unrelated commercial purpose.’ Part of that degradation was historical as well as social; she appealed exhaustively to the longstanding enjoyment of the site by the public and the effect of development on its use. In the end the development was stopped.

Perhaps if Tecoma shows similar persistence they may win out in the end, too. Or they may end up like Goulburn, a town in NSW’s old wool belt. When Goulburn only had one Maccas, on the North-Eastern edge of town, things were alright. But after a second store was put in as part of a massive waystation on the Hume Highway bypass, they even had to move the Big Merino, the town’s main attraction:

As the Goulburn bypass took effect on the city, Goulburn changed. The city expanded and a new development at the southern end meant that the Big Merino, previously the first stop off the southern exit from the expressway was now stranded in no man’s land.

‘No man’s land’ – that’s the town of Goulburn now. Keep up the fight, Tecoma!

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  1. Goulburn is hardly ‘no man’s land’. It has a population of over 20,000, and is not fading away.

    The merino was always hideous, but admittedly it is locally made kitsch. Stealing its testicles is a tradition; perhaps they’ll end up in a burger too. A Big Macrino.

    Interesting article.

  2. Penelope –

    I realise it’s not fading away, but “no man’s land” is a grim way to describe your own town! And yes, the nuts on the Merino were probably the best thing about it.

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