Fast food rights: organising the unorganised

Issue: 155

Julie Sherry

The question of organising the unorganised is an incredibly broad one, engulfing lessons from historical experience in the trade union movement, as well as deeply ideological arguments on the nature of the working class today. But it’s important to note that the question today is also very concrete. Whether it’s in the Fight for $15 campaign in the United States, where masses of previously unorganised workers have swept onto the global stage of history; or the much smaller-scale but still significant examples here in Britain discussed in this article—workers and campaigns are already in the midst of creating their own facts. Those struggles are taking place in a particular political context—one where the ruling establishment is in chaos around the world, and where here in Britain there is a highly politicised mood, accompanying a historically low level of strikes. The experience from the examples of organising the unorganised—both in the US and here—shows that it is possible to develop union organisation. Where bigger unions are investing time and energy, and bank-rolling a strategy to grow in these new areas, the impact can be dramatic. Even where very few resources have gone into organising these workers, where it is much smaller unions taking the lead, they are having an impact, particularly when they are raising political demands that connect to the broader politicised mood. In doing so, they are creating examples that can act as a pressure on the bigger unions.

In April 2017 McDonald’s confirmed that it would offer its 115,000 workers in the UK the option of moving from a zero-hours contract to one with guaranteed hours.1 One McDonald’s worker responded:

Having been involved in the campaign for a year and a half, it is incredibly empowering to know that McDonald’s has shifted as a result of pressure applied by workers and the union. It gives me confidence that collective action really works and that those of us on the shop floor do actually have the power to bring about change in a big way.2

The move represents a climbdown from the company’s previous unwillingness to budge from a business model in which 90 percent of its workforce is employed on zero-hours contracts.3 McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy denied that the shift was a result of protest and political pressure.4 And perhaps he is right. Maybe it really was mere coincidence that the initial promise to allow McDonald’s workers to move off the contracts, made in April 2016, came the morning after a raucous protest led by the newly formed Glasgow fast food branch of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).

On 15 April last year, as tens of thousands of low paid workers across the US joined walkouts, about 40 fast food workers, dressed as “evil Ronald McDonalds” rampaged through the centre of Glasgow as part of an international day of action. The Ronalds converged on a McDonald’s outlet where they held a “precarious work picnic”. They laid down their picnic blanket and brought out “Unhappy Meals” with “zero-hours contracts”, ­“poverty pay”, and “no respect at work” signs. As the Ronalds tried to eat, they were theatrically sick. Then a “Happy Meal” was brought to them. As “£10 an hour”, “guaranteed contracts” and “respect at work” signs emerged from the box, the Ronalds revived and danced a can-can. They also occupied a KFC, taking time to ensure that the workers there understood the protesters were fast food workers too. The protest was met by smiles from the KFC workers.

Regardless of the exact motivation for McDonald’s initial announcement, the new union members were ecstatic, the branch grew, and the workers spoke at union meetings and events in the wider trade union movement. They did so in collaboration with other trade unionists, particularly in the US and New Zealand, who identified as part of the same global movement.

The global context: the US and New Zealand

Over the past few years, the Fight for $15 movement in the US has repeatedly organised strikes, eventually involving tens of thousands of workers, who have, state by state, forced their wages up to almost double their initial level. The campaign was launched in 2012 with a modest walk-out by 200 fast food workers in New York City, who demanded $15 an hour and union rights. Since then, strikes have mostly taken the form of worker-led one-day walkouts, initially across the fast food outlets, involving a varying numbers of workers in each workplace, but with a critical mass across each area. As the movement developed, strikes spread beyond fast food to include a host of other low-waged workers, including care workers, convenience store workers and airport workers.

An estimated 19 million low-paid workers across the US have won $61.5 billion in raises since the Fight for $15 began.5 Today $15 an hour is law in California and the state of New York. It’s law in Seattle and Pennsylvania for nursing home and hospital workers, and for municipal employees in countless other cities. Mayors, city councils and state governments across the US have announced $15 initiatives.6

The Fight for $15 has a much wider significance than simply the fact it has, in some areas, achieved its goal. It has also intermingled with a wider political radicalisation in the US. For example, it was Fight for $15 who led US-wide strikes just days after Donald Trump’s election, under the slogan: “We won’t back down”. The strike campaign added “No to deportations” and “An end to police killing of black people” to its official demands alongside its slogan of “$15 and a union”. It became organically linked, for many of the workers involved, with the Black Lives Matter movement against police racism.7 From the outset, workers themselves perceived of their strikes as following in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, with much of the language of the campaign framed in those terms. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), such as Reverend Barbour, have joined picket lines. Barbour told hundreds of striking fast food workers in 2014:

You are engaged once again in what Dr [Martin Luther] King talked about in 1963…a marvellous new non-violent militancy…we must organise and we cannot retreat. These battles are moral battles, battles for civil rights, battles for living wages, the battle for equal protection under the law…they are all interconnected.8

On the eve of a strike in May 2014, Naquasia LeGrand, a fast food worker living at the time in Brooklyn, stood in the spot where King made his “time to break the silence” speech in a church in Harlem and told thousands of fellow workers and their families gathered there that it was again “time to break the silence on poverty and racism”.9

The struggle in the US has also shown the capacity for workers, even in the most insecure and difficult conditions, to get past the hurdle of their precarity. To overcome the problem of victimisation activists learned to follow their walkouts with “walk backs”, in which other trade unionists, organisers from the 1.5 million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and community figures ensure everyone gets back on shift without a problem.10 Where there was a problem, the store was occupied until it was resolved.

The US is not the only example of a breakthrough in organising the unorganised. Last year New Zealand fast food strikes forced the country’s parliament to change the law to restrict employers’ abuse of zero-hours contracts. Under the new law employers are not allowed to require that workers be “available for work while not being guaranteed it”.11

The campaign brought as much political pressure to bear as possible but, crucially, it involved a drive to unionise, with strikes at the heart of it. One video from a strike day shows an effigy of Ronald McDonald tied to the back of a truck and driven noisily through Auckland. One organiser from New Zealand’s Unite union said:

When working class people go into struggle together against the most powerful multinational companies, the most beautiful moments are those when they go, “Stuff it, we’re worth more and I’m going to stand up for myself and my workmates”. It’s this spark of solidarity that we can build a new world with.12

Britain currently lacks examples on the same scale. In large part this is due to the absence of leadership and resources from a union of the size and weight of the SEIU, who provided practical support for Fight for $15. However, even here we have seen small examples of organisation by groups of workers in similarly difficult contexts. One of the most striking instances is the victory of the cycle couriers at the Deliveroo food delivery service, who, in summer 2016, struck unofficially for a week against changes to their contracts. This was all the more remarkable given that this group of ostensibly self-employed “contractors” perform their work in fairly atomised conditions. Shortly after, riders at another food courier, UberEats, led their own walkout and stormed the Uber headquarters. In both cases the action took place within an overwhelmingly migrant workforce. Workers utilised the same technology that is supposedly transforming the world of work in a way that renders it impossible to organise—communicating through the WhatsApp group messaging app, for instance. They showed considerable initiative in their collective action, at one point chasing away a manager who tried to patronise and cajole the workers back to work—something that was filmed and broadcast live on social media.13

Such examples show the potential for the kinds of struggles seen in the US and New Zealand to spread to Britain.

The British context

Recent months have seen a deluge of articles arguing that we are seeing the emergence of a “gig economy” in which workers are no longer part of a collective workforce, but simply isolated individuals seeking to earn a living through a range of “gigs”, typically acquired through online platforms. Will Hutton expressed this idea in a recent Guardian article:

Today’s digital capitalism is creating a world of consumers delighting in apps for a cheap taxi or delivering groceries to their door. But it is also creating a world of disempowered workers who have to labour in this on-demand world—the gig economy in which a working week is no more than a series of “gigs” contracted out by the online dispensers of on-demand work.14

This is the latest version of an argument about the transformation of the working class with a long history. However, the publication of Guy Standing’s book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class in 2011 marked a moment when the argument penetrated more widely into the trade union and social movements.15 Standing continues to argue that the “precariat” represents a distinct class:

Global capital and the state serving its interests want a large precariat, which is why it is a class-in-the-making not an underclass. Whereas national industrial capital in the Great Transformation [ie the rise of the market economy] wanted to habituate the core part of the proletariat to stable labour and stable living, today’s global capital wishes to habituate the precariat to unstable labour and unstable living. This fundamental difference is one reason for believing that to put the proletariat and precariat together as one category would put a block on analytical reasoning and political imagination.16

But identifying a precariat separate from the proletariat undermines the unity needed and hampers the task of developing workers’ collective power to change society. There are countless historical examples in which previously unorganised “precarious” workers thrust themselves to the centre of the working class movement. One well known case is that of the birth of “new unionism” in the late 1880s in Britain. At the time the trade union movement was dominated by passive organisations defending the interests of narrow groups of skilled workers. Then, in 1888, women match workers at Bryant and May, many of them Irish migrants, who laboured in debilitating conditions, struck—and formed a union. This was the harbinger of a wave of organising, often involving socialist agitators, that began the following year, encompassing the gas workers and dock labourers of London’s East End, and spreading throughout the industrial areas of the country. As one historian writes:

Catering largely for unskilled and poorly paid workers, the new unions tended to have low entrance fees and subscriptions, and depended not on benefits but on aggressive strike tactics to win concessions from their employers and so keep their members satisfied. Furthermore, they were willing to recruit workers without distinction of type of employment, as was indicated by the word “general” which was often to be found in their titles.17

Although many of the new unions did not survive the ruling class offensive that followed, they had a transformative effect on the wider working class movement, challenging the conservatism of the old unions and paving the way for future struggles such as the “Great Unrest” of 1910-14.

In the US, the year 1934 saw a sudden upsurge of militancy in industries that the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was hostile to building among unskilled workers, had hitherto paid lip-service to organising at best. An explosion of struggle, featuring strikes in the auto industry in Toledo, on the docks of San Francisco and among the teamsters in Minneapolis, again had a transformative impact on the wider working class movement, leading to the establishment of the Committee for Industrial Unions (CIO) the following year.18

Not only is it dangerous to ignore the potential for more precarious workers to play a role in revitalising the working class movement, it is also important to have a clear picture of the extent to which workers have been rendered precarious.

This means looking behind the headlines. For instance, one recent report claimed that between 20 and 30 percent of the working age population of the US and the European Union’s (EU) 15 founding members are in “independent work”, implying that these are workers caught up in the gig economy.19 However, ­“independent work” is here defined in a way that completely masks the reality. Over half of those identified as “independent workers” do this type of work to provide “supplemental income”, and most are likely to be full-time or part-time workers in the traditional sense.20 Similarly, although self-employment has grown to reach record levels in Britain since 2000, a fact that is often identified with the growth of the gig economy, the term “self-employed” is an incredibly broad one. It tends to lump together the likes of the Deliveroo riders, who, by virtue of their status, do not receive the same employment rights as other workers, with people running their own businesses.

A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development asked people they identified as gig economy participants if they felt “they have control or autonomy over the work they do” and whether their work made “them feel like their own boss”. Some 38 percent said they did feel like their own boss, 47 percent did not.21 This again hints at the diverse experiences among the “self-employed”. Yet it also emerges that Uber taxi drivers, classed as self-employed by the firm, were among those most likely to feel like they were their own boss.22 The perception workers in the gig economy have of their jobs can mask the nature of the underlying employment relationship. As a recent employment tribunal ruling in a case brought against Uber by two of its drivers put it: “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous”.23 Even if some of those classed as self-employed are, in fact, precarious employees, the “self-employment” only encompasses 15 percent of the overall workforce in the UK, a modest rise from 12 percent in 2000.24 The majority of the workforce remains in formal employment.

Zero-hours contracts are widely seen as another face of growing precarity. Labour’s John McDonnell, who has a strong record of arguing against the casualisation of work, wrote in a recent New Statesman article: “Precarious jobs and zero-hours contracts have become the norm in huge sectors of our labour market”.25 The growing awareness of these contracts is welcome, but it is an exaggeration to calls zero-hours contracts “the norm”. The figure for those on zero-hours contracts is now placed at close to a million with “accommodation and food” being the industry with the highest percentage of the workforce on these contracts: 22 percent.26 According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics less than 3 percent of the UK workforce considers itself to be on this type of contract in their main job.27

So the perception of rapidly growing precarity—reflected both in the headlines and in growing concern within the trade union movement—is greater than the reality. This makes sense in a context in which the level of strikes and workers’ struggles is historically very low, when austerity is hammering working class people, and when pay is being slashed or frozen. The idea that the working class is becoming more precarious feels like it explains our experience of life.

That is not to dismiss the importance of the fight against precarious working conditions, the use of bogus forms of self-employment and the scourge of zero-hours contracts. But exaggerating the scale of the problem, and identifying this with a loss of workers’ capacity to organise and to fight does not help to resist attacks on the working class.

Britain’s fast food industry

In the fast food industry zero-hours contracts and low pay are certainly an issue. The accommodation and food workforce in Britain stands at around 2.3 million.28 McDonald’s UK is among the largest single employers, with 115,000 workers; 42 percent of its employees are under 21, and the average age of an hourly-paid employee is 20.29

In this area of employment, where there are low levels of organisation and a young, highly casualised workforce, zero-hours contract are often used to discipline workers. Those who speak up about working conditions or challenge bullying managers can be victimised by employers without following any procedures: you shut up or they simply do not put you on the rota. Even those who keep their heads down face pressure to come in at short notice. Workers in the industry commonly say that they live their lives constantly weighing up how many times they can turn down the offer of work before their hours are reduced. Their “free time” is policed by this need to be available to work.

Work patterns are often highly irregular. Some weeks workers will labour for 70 hours, other weeks, four—without being able to plan their time in advance. Often workers have to opt out of working time regulations when starting a job.

The question posed by the Fast Food Rights campaign and the efforts of the BFAWU union is whether workers in these conditions can really resist and organise.

According to the 2015 figures, BFAWU organises just 20,000 of Britain’s six million trade unionists.30 Its campaign to unionise the industry—which focuses on fast food but includes workers from a broader range of workplaces, including restaurants and bars such as those owned by the Wetherspoon’s chain—is at an early stage. There are clear obstacles to organisation in this sector. Some 30 percent of workers in the food preparation and hospitality industry are migrant workers, some of whom will be fearful of organising because of their status and some of whom will not have English as their first language.31 The work is extremely badly paid. For instance, a “fully flexible” full-time position as a crew member in Wycombe McDonald’s pays £5.10 for 16-17 year olds (£1.05 above the statutory minimum), £6.10 for 18-20 year olds (£0.50 above), £7.35 for 21-24 year olds (£0.30 above) or £7.60 for those over 24 (£0.10 above). Wetherspoon’s advertises a job on its website as a member of bar staff in Glasgow that pays £7.20 an hour, a rate slightly below the statutory minimum for those over 24 years.32 As has been noted, the use of zero-hours contracts is relatively high, as are other forms of casualised work. It is also not surprising that “gig economy” workers in the food and hospitality industry are the least likely to agree that working in this way makes them feel like their own boss.33

The demand for a £10 per hour minimum wage, a central pillar of the Fast Food Rights campaign since its formation in January 2014, was initially championed by only a minority of trade union leaders, and was dismissed as unrealistic by the Labour Party under its then leader Ed Miliband. It was BFAWU who put forward and passed a motion for it to become policy at the 2015 TUC Congress. Even then, there was reluctance among official leaderships of the movement to take up the demand, despite enthusiasm about Fast Food Rights from many rank and file trade unionists.

However, once Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership, and McDonnell became shadow chancellor, the demand gained a wider hearing. The shift to a left leadership in Labour, along with consistent work by BFAWU and Fast Food Rights, led to £10 an hour becoming official Labour Party policy, featuring in its manifesto for the 2017 general election. Leaders of USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, for example, spoke on the £10 an hour motion at Labour’s 2016 party conference—a dramatic change from the response a year earlier which was lukewarm at best.

Along with the high profile public events, organisers from the BFAWU Fast Food Rights campaign visit fast food workplaces and speak to workers about the campaign and the union, picking up contacts and arranging meet-ups to recruit workers to the union. While some might expect this to pick up little response, either because the workers would be too scared to engage with the union in such exposed circumstances, or perhaps because these workers are insufficiently politicised, the success of this approach is encouraging. After visiting several towns and speaking briefly with workers in each store, organisers phone round workers for a more relaxed, longer conversation.

After the boost given by the rise of Corbyn, and the announcement of £10 an hour as Labour policy, the campaign started using “£10 an hour now” petitions inside the workplaces, highlighting what Corbyn had said. There was a visibly better response in this period. Sometimes, in the less busy times, workers would even take the petition from activists, passing it round everyone on shift on the fryers.

While £10 an hour has been the central demand thus far, it should be noted that the pledge from Labour to end all zero-hours contracts in their 2017 manifesto might increase the legitimacy of this demand, which has also featured in the campaign.

At the time of the New Unionism movement of the 1880s, Eleanor Marx described how the demand for an eight hour day took time to be taken seriously by whole sections of the upper echelons of the trade union movement.34 Similarly, the BFAWU Fast Food Rights campaign had to fight to create a focus around their two demands. It was important to plant a flag, differentiating the specifics of £10 an hour now rather than simply demanding the current living wage, and clarifying a position that every worker in every job should have the automatic right to a contract with a guaranteed number of hours.

Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, has recently said of zero-hours contracts: “Let’s learn from New Zealand”.35 New Zealand fast food workers who participated in the victory against zero-hours contracts spoke in May 2016 at a forum in London organised by the BFAWU Fast Food Rights campaign, alongside John McDonnell.

It’s impossible to talk seriously about organising the unorganised without reference to a whole number of combative strikes led by migrant workers. The most recent in a string of examples is the unofficial walkout by cleaners in Barts Health Trust. On the day they were taken over by private vulture firm Serco, they were informed they would no longer have their breaks, and that they were facing a 10 year pay deal at 1 percent—a catastrophic attack on what is already woefully low pay. Over 100 of them walked out, holding a meeting in the canteen. With another walkout the next morning it wasn’t long before Serco bosses backed down, reinstating the break.

The cleaners—overwhelmingly migrant workers, and mostly not yet in the union at the point when they took collective action—struck a quick and effective blow, showing how we can take on not just attacks on pay and conditions, but how we can defend our NHS from privatisation. Unite, who are organising the cleaners, are set to ballot to strike over the attack on pay. At a time when the establishment is whipping up racist scapegoating of migrants, this was another example, like many before it, showing migrant workers are not to blame for low pay and attacks on working conditions, but are part of the solution.

As in the US, there is clear politicisation in the Fast Food Rights campaign, and this is seen in the way that the question of racism has featured. This has helped build the campaign among migrant workers. In the fast food campaign, workers have talked about the importance of anti-racism as something the union is seen actively to lead on—in order to challenge racism in the workplace, but also to recruit new members. For instance, in Glasgow, BFAWU members visiting workplaces to recruit to the union encountered migrant workers who had already seen BFAWU flags on a national Stand Up To Racism demonstration defending migrant workers and refugees passing their workplace.


There can sometimes be an attitude at the top of the trade union movement that organising the unorganised is unrealistic. The examples discussed here—and there are others such as the victory of the Unite Hotel Workers branch at Pizza Express over workers’ tips, the United Voices of the World (UVW) campaigns that have won the living wage for migrant cleaners in London, or the success of Unite’s campaign to secure the minimum wage at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook—tell a different story. So too, in a more dramatic fashion, does the US Fight for $15. One difference in the US is the support of the massive SEIU union for the campaign, particularly when the strikes took place across such a vast geographical area. The decision to mount such a campaign appears to be an attempt to address the overall decline of the trade union movement in the US, and this has opened up new possibilities for rank and file organising.

In Britain, the biggest weakness of the Fast Food Rights campaign is the limited size and resources of the union leading it. Yet despite this, the union has not only made a name for itself within the movement, but also had an impact, from generalising the “£10 an hour” slogan to the shift by McDonald’s over zero-hours contracts. What has been achieved, through sheer determination and bold political action, points to the potential that exists among these groups of workers. In the case of the Deliveroo strike it was the tiny Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) who provided the support for workers. The engagement of larger unions would help these and similar organising efforts—provided they continued to connect the struggles of these previously unorganised workers with the wider political issues that have emerged in recent years. The political nature of the lead given inside any campaign to unionise new areas is defining in whether it can catch a mood among those sections of workers.

In the US, an understanding that by mobilising a worker-led campaign, and crucially a militant one that connected with the rage many workers in that industry felt over racism and poverty, was central to the success of the campaign. Developing a framework for the campaign that pitched a bigger vision—the sense that every worker who took part in the strike was playing a role in a historic mission—was crucial to lighting the spark that saw the explosion of strikes happen in the way that it did. A narrower campaign that did not connect these political questions, or attempt to cultivate a rank and file leadership, would not have had the same impact.

This side of the Atlantic it has not been the big battalions of the trade union movement taking a lead. It has not been the unions with the resources to bankroll a campaign on the scale we have seen in the US. And what a difference it could make if they were to do so seriously. But the smaller unions have, despite their limited resources, been able to create a focus and develop real examples that show the potential to organise the unorganised. In most cases, this has been something that has been built, not in syndicalist isolation from the wider trade union movement, but very consciously in connection with, and seeking the solidarity of, the wider grassroots trade union movement. In this way they are able to act as a pressure on the bigger forces of the trade union movement, a thorn in the side of inertia.

There are many differences between the political nature of the current period, and the one that those forging the struggles New Unionism faced. Capitalism is over a century older and ridden by crises, and at this particular moment the political establishment is in chaos across the world. But nonetheless, one thing to draw on from the experience of New Unionism is to remember that the explosion of strike action then was precipitated by intensely political movements—from solidarity with the refugees of the Paris Commune, to huge demonstrations over the oppression of Ireland, to outrage at the framing and murder of anarchist activists from the Eight Hour Day movement in the US, to battles with police on the streets of London over rights to assembly. Currently, there is a politicised mood, with large-scale mobilisations over austerity, war, racism and climate change and mass demonstrations in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The sharpening polarisation reflected in a whole series of unexpected turns over the last few years can be expected to continue, and within that process it is possible to envisage the potential for a breakthrough of a more combative wave of workers’ struggles. That is in no way inevitable, but what the experience of the US tells is that just when you’re least expecting it, the capacity for workers to fight is never too far from the surface. Building a current inside the working class—linking the process of attempting to unionise new areas with the task of strengthening union organisation in organised sections, raising bigger politics of anti-racism and anti-austerity, and crucially fighting to raise the confidence of workers in their own agency to bring about change, is how socialists can be best placed to prepare for the battles to come within the volatile swirl of a world in turmoil.

Julie Sherry is an industrial organiser for the SWP.


1 Ruddick, 2017.

2 This article draws on my own correspondence and conversations with a range of union and fast food rights activists both in the United States and Britain. In many cases I have not named or identified these sources, for obvious reasons.

3 Hall, 2013.

4 Ruddick, 2017.

5 Hirsch, 2016.

6 See the Fight for $15 campaign website at

7 Trudell, 2015.

8 Speech during US fast food strike on picket line in Durham, North Carolina, September 2014, go to

9 Sherry, 2014.

10 Maniscalco, 2014. I attended one of the strikes in Raleigh, North Carolina in September 2014, and the walk backs were the campaign’s standard procedure across the country by this point.

11 Newman, 2016.

12 From an interview I conducted with Joe Carolan, Unite New Zealand organiser, during their latest strikes in May 2017.

13 See the video by United Voices of the World at (12 August 2016).

14 Hutton, 2016.

15 Standing, 2011.

16 Standing, 2014, p3.

17 Pelling, 1970, pp91-92.

18 On 1934 see Newsinger, 2009.

19 Manyika and others, 2016.

20 Manyika and others, 2016.

21 CIPD, 2017, p21.

22 CIPD, 2017, p21.

23 Osborne, 2016.

24 Office for National Statistics, 2017a.

25 McDonnell, 2016.

26 Office for National Statistics, 2017b.

27 Office for National Statistics, 2017b.

28 Office for National Statistics, 2017a.

31 Rienzo, 2016.

33 CPID, 2017.

34 Marx, 1891.

35 Monaghan, 2017.


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