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The other day I was at one of my tutoring gigs, and a student asked me, “Muster Persons, you ever steal from McDonald’s?”  Immediately, I shook my head.  “No, never stolen from McDonalds.  Never really GO to McDonalds.”  The last time I’d eaten there was in China, and then they’d forgotten to take the plastic off the sausage before making my McMuffin.   “Really?” pursued the student, “You mean you never asked for a water and then filled up the cup with soda?”  Oh, that’s what you mean by stealing?  Well, yeah, of course- I’ve done that many times.  Everyone’s done that.

And everyone pretty much has done that.  Or rather, enough people have done it that it doesn’t seem shockingly petty or dangerous.  It seems more like something marginally bad kids do, like throwing down those little explosive poppers on other kids’ feet, or drawing genitalia on someone’s face at a sleepover.  But it got me thinking- how much does that level of theft really permeate our society, and is it mild enough to be acceptable?

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find something about this.  It’s a hard thing to search; I typed in “Asking for Water at McDonald’s and Filling it Up With Soda Instead”.  I didn’t really find much other than a discussion thread on a site I’ve never heard of, but in some ways, that’s a more appropriate source for this issue than, say, a Huffington Post article might be.  Judging by the spread of McDonald’s, and other fast food chains around the world (I used to do it at Fuddruckers mostly), I’d imagine this is something done secretly somewhere nearly every minute of every day.  The initial question for the thread takes the perfect tone:

“Curious what everyone’s opinion on this is? I’m sure most here have done it at least once before, if not regularly.
Morally it’s a bit of a gray area I think. They aren’t taking any kind of noteworthy loss, a couple cents maybe?
Legally it is theft, so there is that.
I’ve done it, I don’t have any real qualms about doing it, but it’s not really a habit either.”

Two interesting things to note: the author assumes that most people have done this before, and concedes that it is a “moral gray area”.  But actually, it isn’t: Stealing is theft, dishonesty is dishonest, and though petty theft is something I personally enjoy and condone, it isn’t difficult to recognize it and own up to it.  The tone that this FAQer takes is kind of how I think most people feel about this: it’s stealing but we like soda and these companies are huge so who cares?  The note of animosity toward corporate business is common, the moral ambivalence seems familiar.  And you should see how people react when a franchise owner tries to patch the hole and charge for water.  One man posted a thread about this, writing, “I was told that they charge for ice water. I told the cashier to cancel my order and left.”

I think that what it comes down to is that we, as a society, don’t really like McDonald’s.  Sure, some people like the food, and anyone who has eaten there has liked the convenience-, some of us like it for the nostalgia, but we will never love McDonald’s in the same way as we love our local cafes and sandwich shops.  You might love “a” McDonalds”, but you don’t necessary have feeling for McDonald’s generally. In the same way that you might cabbage at a Kroger but not at a Trader Joe’s, you might steal soda from McDonald’s but from Carytown Burgers and Fries.  Most reasonably feel that they A) make products that kill people B) pay employees a starvation wage and C) are huge, so it doesn’t matterwhat we do to them on the small scale.  McDonald’s, and other places like it, have come to inspire antipathy, sometimes even in people who like the food and culture.

McDonald’s makes some people really angry, like those of the McDonald’s Workers Resistance , based out of Glasgow.  They’ve published their “alternative employee handbook.”  Though a disclaimer refers to the handbook as “humorous” and “just for entertainment”, the polemics within suggest otherwise:

Dedicated Employees

“McDonalds steals the wealth we produce in the form of profits every shift we work, so it’s totally ethical for us to try and take the profit back through whatever means we can. Unfortunately, legal systems across the world exist to preserve the capitalist system. As Noam Chomsky put it ‘the country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority, and so it remains.’”

From there, the handbook is more or less a guide on what to steal while working and how not to get caught.  It suggests that,

“Everything is up for grabs- happy toys, cheese, chocolate flakes, lettuce, wedges, sauce portions, cleaning substances, strip lights, sticky tape, cooking equipment, salt, pepper, sugar, pancake mix, plants, tea bags, rubbish bags, balloons, ladders, toilet roll, fire extinguishers… you can keep friends and family supplied with tea bags, household equipment, sauces, etc. Get stuck into the black economy. McDonalds owes us, we could be robbing them blind for years and not get back half of what they’ve stolen from us.”

The author of this “handbook” writes with such sincerity that I have no trouble believing that at least some of the workers at McDonald’s worldwide are actually stealing on this level. And if this really is the case, they shouldn’t expect any love from their public, and be glad that, for the moment, the most frequent fast food thieves are just kids filling up water cups with soda.