Hungry consumers hoping for an Egg McMuffin or a Big Mac for lunch on Tuesday found a surprise outside their local McDonald’s: picket lines. In a historic multi-state strike, women workers walked off their jobs at McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago, Detroit, Durham, Kansas City, St Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and Orlando. Carrying signs that read “McDonalds, Hands off My Buns,” they joined a global #MeToo movement in protest against endemic sexual harassment in their workplaces.
In May, McDonald’s workers in ten cities filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that sexual harassment and unwanted touching were everyday occurrences at numerous McDonald’s restaurants and that when workers attempted to file complaints with store managers, they suffered retaliation in the form of verbal abuse, cuts in hours, and intentionally inconvenient schedules. (They also filed complaints in 2016.)
Folsom, California McDonald’s worker Kristi Maisenbach told the EEOC that her supervisor had touched her breasts several times and rubbed his genitals against her butt. He later sent her a text message offering $1,000 for oral sex. When she complained to the general manager, her hours were cut so severely that she had to quit.
Flint, Michigan McDonald’s worker Cortez Clerk says that her supervisor verbally and physically harassed her every day at work. Explaining her decision to file a complaint with the EEOC, she said: “McDonald’s monitors everything we do — from how fast the drive-thru is moving, to how we fold our customers’ bags. Yet when I filed a complaint against my shift manager for regularly sexually harassing me — which included him showing me a photo of his genitals — McDonald’s had no response.” Clerk also quit, unable to bear the harassment any longer. “I really needed that job and the money, and I considered remaining silent. But I believed McDonald’s had my back and would be horrified by the way I was treated. I was wrong.”
Tuesday’s one-day strike was workers’ way of ratcheting up the pressure on McDonald’s to finally take action — not only in its corporate-owned restaurants but also in its franchises. Strikers demanded that the company strengthen and enforce its stated zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, hold mandatory trainings for managers and employees, create a simple system for receiving and responding to complaints, and protect workers from retaliation. Finally, they insisted that McDonald’s convene a committee of workers, corporate executives, franchise representatives, and leaders from national women’s groups to formulate new policies to keep workers safe from sexual harassment.
Building the Pressure
Women workers have been organizing around the issue of sexual harassment for years, and they have won some important victories.
Last year, union hotel housekeepers in Chicago won a citywide “hands off, pants on” ordinance protecting workers in an industry where an estimated 75 percent of housekeepers have faced unwanted advances or lewd talk. That ordinance went into effect this summer, and hotel workers in California are hoping to pass a similar statewide bill. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries where clothing is made today, women garment workers are pressing the International Labor Organization for a global labor convention mandating zero tolerance for gender-based violence in the workplace. And, in March, women tomato pickers from Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) staged a five-day hunger strike in Manhattan to protest fast food chain Wendy’s decision to purchase tomatoes in Mexico in order to evade strict anti-sexual harassment rules now in effect on Florida farms that have joined CIW’s Fair Food Program.
Now, the #MeToo movement has hit McDonald’s, the world’s second-largest private employer and the flagship of a fast food industry in which an estimated 42 percent of workers experience sexual harassment and/or groping.
McDonald’s corporate claims that it has no — or little — control over the franchisees that own 90 percent of the burger giant’s more than fourteen thousand stores. But in a related case from 2016 (also filed by fast food workers associated with the Fight for 15), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that McDonald’s could be held accountable for conditions in its franchisee-owned stores. And while Trump’s NLRB has tried to rescind that decision, the president’s NLRB appointee has so far had to recuse himself in this case so the decision stands.
Meanwhile, the ten women who filed the EEOC complaint last May are spearheading the direct action campaign against McDonald’s. These women first met each other when they traveled to Chicago for the annual McDonald’s shareholder meeting in Spring 2018 to tell their stories. The experience of testifying together was powerful, and they decided to keep in touch. Their newfound bond, the knowledge that they were not alone, that this was not an individual problem but a systemic and collective grievance, moved them to form committees of women workers in each of their ten cities. It was those committees that organized, voted for, and conducted Tuesday’s strike.
The committees traveled to different stores conducting sexual harassment trainings. It was not difficult to mobilize their colleagues. Complaints to management have been ignored or even mocked, the women workers say. Women often lose their jobs — or are forced to quit — if they press their claims. Since a high percentage of those responsible for the harassment have been store or shift managers who have control over scheduling, wages, hiring, and firing, women workers know that retaliation is likely for those who dare to file complaints.
That’s why they need a union, workers insist. A union brings more than solidarity. If recognized, as McDonald’s has done in Denmark, South Korea, and New Zealand, a McDonald’s workers union would bring legal contracts guaranteeing their rights.
Just a Start
It’s been a long time since a strike in the US directly targeted sexual harassment. One hundred and six years ago, young women garment workers in Kalamazoo, Michigan walked off their jobs, joining a wave of strikes in the century’s second decade that spread from New York City to Chicago, Boston to Cleveland, Philadelphia to Kalamazoo, and back to Brooklyn.
These strikes were historic because many male labor leaders believed that young women could not organize, and that they would not hold solidarity long enough to wage a successful strike. But the Kalamazoo strike was also groundbreaking because the strikers spoke out about sexual harassment, demanding that foremen be fired for extorting sex from young women workers.
At the time, male union leaders, and even some female organizers, believed that the issue was best dealt with in behind-the-scenes negotiations. A century later, things are rather different. Spurred on by the rise of #MeToo and the organizing of their fellow workers in hotels, farm work, and garment shops, McDonald’s workers took direct action against their bosses and demanded an end to sexual coercion — with women of color playing a leading role.
Still, workers say Tuesday’s strike was just a start. They are continuing to file complaints, locally as well as nationally. They are strategizing about how best to protect undocumented workers who fear deportation if they make themselves visible to the federal government. More strikes are almost certainly on the horizon, and organizers anticipate that the next round of actions will be bigger and will involve more cities.
McDonald’s women’s committees are regularly meeting in the ten cities where the strike took place, and more are being organized in other parts of the country. Online phone calls led by women who organized the strike are working to enlist the general public in distributing Know Your Rights leaflets at restaurants around the country. Workers have launched a sexual harassment hot line (844-384-4495). They will continue to press McDonald’s to form a committee on sexual harassment. We are looking at all possible paths to pressure the company, they say.
Strikers may already have won one of their demands. In a stunningly oblivious (or intentionally belligerent) move, McDonald’s announced ahead of the strike that it was employing the Chicago law firm of Seyfarth Shaw to help the company “evolve” its sexual harassment policy. Strikers demanded that McDonald’s cut ties with Seyfarth Shaw, which is not only notorious for its union-busting, but also represents Harvey Weinstein and Kay Jewelers in sexual harassment suits. After the strike, McDonald’s press releases regarding sexual harassment no longer mentioned Seyfarth Shaw. Whether McDonald’s has simply decided to hide their work with Seyfarth Shaw we do not know. But, in any case, the strikers’ demands are being heard. McDonald’s also announced that it will contract with the national anti-sexual violence organization RAINN to do sexual harassment trainings, but so far, RAINN says, this is just talk. Nothing formal has been decided.
#MeToo didn’t start in Hollywood. Women leaders in the Fight for 15 have been talking about sexual harassment since the movement began. Women farm workers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, hotel workers in UNITE HERE, and garment workers in the International Trade Union Federation have all been organizing around sexual violence and harassment in the workplace for years. They spoke out long before #MeToo became front page news and they are continuing to. What may make this time different is the moment we are in. And the fact that low-wage women workers have no intention of stopping their agitation any time soon.