Education vs Big Burger

A letter arrived at Ontario’s Ministry of Education in November 1984 from McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada. The restaurant chain’s Director of Personnel Roy Ellis wrote to complain about J.M. Green and I.W. Mills’ textbook In Your Own Words 1. Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1981, the approved and circulating text included an article called “Confessions of a McDonald’s Girl” that described working conditions at the chain that had come to symbolize poorly paid employment. Ellis’ letter to the Ministry said his company was disturbed that In Your Own Words recorded workers’ starting salary at 73 cents below the current rate, but accurate when the book had been published three years earlier.

In another example, our wage increases are described as being between five and ten cents every four months, when they are actually more than twice these amounts. The writer also states that increases to minimum wage ‘swallow up’ regular merit increases when, in fact, we have a system of compression and adjustments designed to ensure this does not occur. In addition to these inaccurate statements, the entire tone of the article is very negative and paints an untrue picture of McDonald’s as an employer.1

The restaurant chain was by its own declaration already the largest employer of students in Canada, and was concerned about what it called misleading information being presented to “impressionably young people.” Ellis described how McDonald’s took leadership responsibly.

Our scheduling, for example, accommodates each employee’s own availability to avoid any conflict with school responsibilities, family obligations and outside activities. Our commitment to this group goes beyond our scheduling practices; in 1985, McDonald’s will award 80 scholarships of $400.00 each, within Ontario, to employees attending college or university. We also provide scholarships and bursaries for Food and Hospitality students in a number of Ontario community colleges.2

Ellis did not say whether the scholarships and donations were tax deductible. He also did not seek a remedy, but simply stated that McDonald’s believed the text should not have been approved.

Following receipt of the letter, bureau manager Jim Clemens called the president of Holt’s school division, John Dill, to discuss solutions. Dill offered to reprint In Your Own Words without “Confessions of a McDonald’s Girl,” and make it available by 1986.3 Dill wanted at least another year to sell off his inventory and felt this was the best he could do given that his company had just been made aware of the problem.3 But the publisher’s offer wasn’t good enough.

Clemens requested advice from the Ministry’s legal director, R.A. Copeland, who opined that McDonald’s had grounds for a lawsuit because the article was derogatory to the restaurant chain’s reputation. He saw a potentially major claim against the harm done to McDonald’s trademark, plus the cost of legal expenses.

Mr. Copeland indicated that any main claim would be against the publisher and/or author. The Ministry could be involved in a secondary nature because by approving the title and publicizing it, we would be viewed as enhancing the book and the article.4

Internal discussions resulted in the Ministry removing the book from Circular 14 textbook catalogue officially on account of violence it described elsewhere, such as in an article called “Death Watch.” But the story that offended McDonald’s was also excised. One officer involved commented that no other book had been delisted without the usual years of warning. This was an extraordinary concession; complaints to publishers from ordinary citizens typically went unanswered or were handled in due course. When Clemens delivered the news to Dill, the publisher con-ceded further, agreeing to have the reprint available by February 1985. “As well, the present edition … will not be for sale in Ontario as of today, January 2nd, 1985. And, I’ll never eat at McDonald’s again! And neither will my kids!” The publisher’s quick turnaround was extraordinary. Officer Clemens reported back to McDonald’s, informing Ellis of the forthcoming changes.

With the incident, the Ministry further deliberated on the potential legal problems of naming trademarks and commercial enterprises in authorized materials. Corporate names could be a hazard for publishers, even as corporate products and services were growing as an everyday reality in students’ lives. The government’s fear of legal retribution reduced students ability to learn about the supplier and employer corporations that formed their market-based society. Green and Mill’s wage quote was then off by a few cents. But McDonald’s $3.07 wage for a minor of, when originally published in reporter Ian Walker’s 1978 Windsor Star newspaper article,5 would have helped students appreciate the large discrepancy between McDonald’s wages and the Canadian average of approximately $10.50. For a Ministry supposedly concerned for children’s education, one could believe that this was the more relevant fact.  [Updated July 27, 2023,April 21, 2020]

1. Ellis, Roy. Complaint letter to Ministry, Nov. 15, 1984. B343858, RG 2-243-1, AO.
2. Ibid.
3. Dill, John. Letter to Ministry re: In Your Own Words, Dec. 12, 1984. B343858, RG 2-243-1, AO.
4. Clemens, James. Memo to In Your Own Words file, Dec. 20, 1984. B343858, RG 2-243-1, AO.
5. Walker, Ian. “Confessions of a McDonald’s Girl,” Windsor Star Weekend Magazine. October 7, 1978. p. 8.