On Tuesday, women workers at McDonald’s made history.
McDonald’s workers in ten cities went on strike during the lunch hour to protest sexual harassment, as well as inadequate responses or retaliation they’d received from management. For its part, McDonald’s says that no workers walked off the job.
McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago; Durham, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles; Miami; Milwaukee; New Orleans; Orlando; San Francisco; and St. Louis all saw strikes as workers demanded that the McDonald’s Corporation respond to their complaints. A similar strike over the sexual harassment of women workers has not happened in over 100 years, when, in 1912, corset workers in Kalamazoo, Michigan, walked off the job in protest of sexual abuse.
Women who work at McDonald’s restaurants across the country spoke publicly about the sexual harassment and attempted assaults they’d endured. Barbara Johnson, a McDonald’s employee from St. Louis, described two instances of groping as well as lewd comments. In the first incident, a manager groped her, but when she reported it, nothing happened. She was 17. Johnson was too scared to report the second.
In May, ten women, assisted by the Fight for $15, filed complaints against the McDonald’s Corporation, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation when speaking up about it, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Johnson filed her complaint in person at St. Louis’s local EEOC on Tuesday.
"I want McDonald's to take their time and effort that they put into everything else—like the labor, how much we get paid, the uniform policies, how we need to be on time,” Johnson told St. Louis Public Radio. “They need to take the same time and effort and put it into the sexual harassment policy, too.”
Mary Joyce Carlson, an attorney with the Fight for $15, says that the issue of sexual harassment first came up alongside other complaints from low-wage workers during organizing for increased wages. Fight for $15 is not just about increasing the wage, she says, “but also to organize low-wage workers in this sector of the economy for power—to take power at work.” That’s why Fight for $15 also brought attention to unsafe worker conditions at McDonald’s and also why they also took on sexual harassment.
This work actually began two years ago; in 2016, 15 women, in coordination with Fight for $15, filed sexual harassment complaints against McDonald’s. They provided unsettling descriptions of harassment that management mostly had ignored. There were some moments of publicity and some protests, “but we were not really able to break through or make any change on it,” says Carlson.
Then came #MeToo.
That phrase and campaign originated about a decade ago with Tarana Burke, an activist who focused on “empowerment through empathy” and aimed to lift up the stories of low-income women of color. The current incarnation of #MeToo, and the hashtag, was popularized by prominent actresses outing their sexual harassers and assailants, and demanding to be heard. Unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to sexual harassment are low-income women, especially women of color.
A 2016 surveyby Hart Research Associates found that 40 percent of women fast food workers, disproportionately women of color, reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job. Nearly half of those women reported health problems, like stress and depression, stemming from the abuse. One in five experienced retaliation from management.
As Alissa Quart and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in The New York Review of Books, a campaign like #MeToo “offers an opportunity rarely found in our class-polarized society: to bring together women across economic levels around a single issue.” Women in the entertainment industry took that opportunity by founding and funding the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fundto assist women when they reported sexual harassment. The fund is supporting the McDonald’s workers with their federal complaints.
Fighting sexual harassment in a low-wage job without the protections of a union can not only be difficult, but risky. Women earning the minimum wage or just above it may not be able to afford to speak up and risk their jobs. Such workers are also more vulnerable to retaliation—for instance, having their hours reduced.
But McDonald’s workers are taking those risks. In May, mere months after the first calls of “me too,” the women filed their complaints—the second set of federal complaints coordinated by Fight for $15—and then met that month in Chicago. There, says Carlson, meeting each other for the first time and sharing stories, is when something powerful happened.
“I think, each woman before they got to this meeting, had thought they alone experienced these troubles,” Carlson told the Prospect. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. Through their shared experiences, they began planning, and organized worker committees in their respective cities.
“The power that they have is not the power of celebrity,” said Carlson. “The power they have is collective power and organizing power.”
McDonald’s corporate officers did not respond to these workers’ complaints. And so, organizers began to talk of a strike. The protests and the publicity events in 2016 didn’t really break through either the media’s or management’s indifference. Perhaps a strike—a concentrated action to remind management that profits come from workers, though the goal of this one would be to garner public awareness and support—could have an impact, compel a change. That’s what strikes did for the mostly-women teachers across the country who walked off their jobs this spring to fight for better pay and worker protections
On Tuesday, McDonald’s workers walked off the job or didn’t show up for their shifts. In Chicago, workers read a list of their demands outside McDonald’s corporate headquarters. A plane flew overheard carrying a banner that read “MCDONALD’S: STOP SEXUAL HARASSMENT.” In New Orleans, protestors marched with duct tape that read “#MeToo” over their mouths, removing it to chant.
— Fight For 15 Chicago (@chifightfor15) September 18, 2018
The workers are demanding that McDonald’s strengthen—and actually enforce—its “zero-tolerance” policy against sexual harassment; hold mandatory trainings for both management and workers “to create a safe and effective system for receiving and responding to complaints”; and create a committee, which would include McDonald’s workers, McDonald’s representatives, franchise representatives, and national women’s organizations like the National Women’s Law Center, to address these issues.
In a request for comment, McDonald’s emailed a statement to the Prospect: “We have strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment. To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response including, RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network], to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day.”
RAINN provides consulting services to organizations to combat sexual violence and harassment. According to The New York Times, a RAINN spokesperson said that the organization had “preliminary” conversations with McDonald’s months ago, but is not, as of yet, working with them.
Earlier versions of that statement sent to other media outlets also recognized McDonald’s corporation’s work with Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a consulting company that is currently working with the Weinstein Company, as some of their “experts.” In response to backlash over McDonald’s decision to use the firm representing the company of the original #MeToo serial sexual abuser, it seems the mention of that firm was removed.
The McDonald’s spokesperson also wrote, “For additional background purposes, no workers walked off the job at the restaurants across the 10 cities. For context, a ‘walk off’ is when an employee clocks in for a shift and then during that shift chooses to walk out/off.”
In response to the McDonald’s charge, Carlson says that some workers did indeed walk off their shifts, while others simply didn’t show up for work. The nature of low-wage shift work like that of McDonald’s workers means that workers used various methods of leaving work.
“This [was] a legally protected strike,” Carlson added. “Notices of strike were given…[and] hundreds of workers were on strike” on Tuesday.
In March, McDonald’s turned their golden arches logo upside down in a hokey recognition of International Woman’s Day. According to McDonald’s global diversity officer, they did so “in honor of the extraordinary accomplishments of women everywhere and especially in our restaurants.”
The women in their restaurants, in executing this strike, did achieve an extraordinary accomplishment.
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