McDonald’s workers say #MeToo in unprecedented strike

Leigh Fifelski

Leigh Fifelski

The fast-food company's business model makes it easy to deflect responsibility for sexual harassment. In protest, women employees across multiple states are walking off the job.

UPDATE, 4:00 p.m., EST: This piece has been updated to include photographs of the strike and quotes about the precedent the stoppage is setting.

A coalition of McDonald’s workers in 10 cities across the country will walk off the job at noon on Tuesday, in an effort to demand stronger workplace protections against sexual harassment and related retaliation.

The strike is being organized by #MeToo McDonald’s, a group of mostly women workers who are employed in low-wage fast-food jobs in over a dozen states. The coalition has support from Fight for $15, a labor movement that advocates for living wages and better working conditions, and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which connects victims of gender-based discrimination with subsidized or free legal support.

The group is calling for stronger enforcement of McDonald’s policy prohibiting sexual harassment, as well as mandatory trainings for all staff on sexual harassment. The strike comes nearly a year after the “Me Too” movement was amplified across the globe through social media, following widespread coverage of sexual misconduct by prominent men across industries. The phrase was originally coined in 2006 by activist and organizer Tarana Burke as part of a movement for young women—particularly women of color—who wanted to acknowledge that they had survived sexual violence.

On Tuesday, approximately 30 workers and allies showed up to support the #MeToo McDonald's strike in a Louisiana location of the restaurant. Credit: Leigh Fifelski, September 2018Leigh Fifelski

On Tuesday, approximately 30 workers and allies showed up to support the #MeToo McDonald’s strike in a Louisiana location of the restaurant

Tuesday’s strike is months in the making. In May, the National Women’s Law Center, which administers the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, filed sexual harassment complaints against McDonald’s on behalf of 10 women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). At the heart of the legal effort was the women’s claims that managers at the fast-food company and its franchisees failed to address sexually aggressive language and behaviors, and in some cases retaliated against women who reported it by firing them or reducing their hours.

Tanya Harrell is one of those women. After reporting harassment by a co-worker, Harrell says that she was ignored and teased by managers at the McDonald’s in Louisiana where she worked. In May, Harrell transferred to a different McDonald’s location, where she still works. Both locations are in Louisiana and owned by the same franchisee, called Jamjomar, Inc., owned by former NFL football player James Thrower.

Harrell says she is planning to participate in Tuesday’s strike. Over the phone, she describes the coalition’s aims.

“We want to hold McDonald’s accountable for these allegations,” she says. “It’s not fair to us women to feel neglected.”

As is often the case, after complaints were filed with the EEOC in May, more McDonald’s workers spoke up to share their experiences of harassment while working at the fast-food chain. The complaints gained momentum and culminated in plans to strike.

“McDonald’s can claim that they have nothing to do with harassment at most of its locations because it is legally not the employer.”
It’s not so difficult to imagine why it took a chorus of voices to launch #MeToo McDonald’s. Fast-food workers typically earn low wages, which they can be fearful of jeopardizing in the face of harassment, says Brian Heller, a lawyer based in New York City who has represented workers in similar lawsuits against fast-food companies in the past. Heller is not involved in the National Women’s Law Center’s complaints against McDonald’s.

“People in the fast-food industry generally rely on their jobs just to keep their heads above water,” Heller tells me by phone. “If you’re making minimum wage, and the only thing between you and homelessness is this job at a fast-food place, it’s going to be very hard to stand up and risk that if you’re being harassed.”

Most fast-food workers don’t belong to unions, either, and can’t rely on collective bargaining to negotiate higher wages or better workplace protections.

Heller says that in this case, McDonald’s could deflect blame for harassment at most of its restaurants because technically, they’re owned by franchisees, who simply license its name and branding. According to its most recent form 10-Q, McDonald’s has 37,406 locations worldwide. 34,521 of the of them are franchised—that’s about 92%. I reached out to McDonald’s with a request for comment and had not received a reply before press time.

“McDonald’s can claim that they have nothing to do with harassment at most of its locations because it is legally not the employer,” Heller says. “If McDonald’s knows it can never get sued for sexual harassment, they’re less likely to take action to stop it. It takes away their incentive to take action to protect workers.”

Tuesday’s strike is remarkable for the being the first work stoppage dedicated to curbing sexual harassment in the #MeToo era.
The idea that McDonald’s isn’t responsible for harassment at its stores—franchisee-owned or not—is absurd to Harrell.

“It doesn’t matter if [a store] is franchised or corporate,” she says. “Sexual harassment happens.”

Right now, the federal government is on Harrell’s side. But that might not be true for long. On September 13, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed a rule that would tighten the current “joint employer” standard, a criteria that determines whether a company like McDonald’s is legally responsible for employees of its franchisees. In 2015, the NLRB under President Obama ruled that it is, so long as it has any control over various terms of employment, such as worker scheduling and overtime. The NLRB seems poised to overturn to overturn that.

Economic protests are not without precedent, Heller notes. On February 16, 2017, shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, significant numbers of restaurants and retail businesses across the country shut down in support of the Day Without Immigrants. The large-scale protest was intended to underscore the contributions immigrants make to the American economy, in spite of a White House administration that has been hostile to them. While, the #MeToo McDonald’s strike isn’t a boycott, it is aimed at drawing attention to the fact that McDonald’s depends on women to operate.

This isn’t the first time this year that workers have called out a fast food company for insufficient labor protections, either. In March of this year, farmworkers held a five-day hunger strike outside the New York City offices of Wendy’s chairman Nelson Peltz. The strikers were members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworkers’ rights group that, in 2005, established a supply-chain certification program to raise tomato prices by a penny per pound, which they said would support better working conditions and combat sexual violence in the fields. Wendy’s remains the single largest holdout in this program, which counts Subway, Walmart, and, yes, McDonald’s among its signatories.

But when it comes to sexual harassment, McDonald’s is failing its workers, and engaging in corporate hypocrisy to boot, Harrell says. In March of this year, she points out, McDonald’s paid lip service to women by turning its golden arches upside down on International Women’s Day. But what real-life action has the fast-food company taken since?

“They flip arches to show that they stand with us and yet they don’t.”

Early Tuesday morning, Bloomberg reported that McDonald’s had retained the services of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, the legal firm representing Weinstein Company, the now-defunct film studio started by Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein faces over 80 allegations of sexual misconduct, has been charged with three counts of sexual assault in New York. Just today, British police launched an investigation into a new assault allegation, The New York Times reports .

Tuesday’s strike is remarkable for the being the first work stoppage dedicated to curbing sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, says Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

“We’ve seen sexual harassment often included in a number of demands for dignity, respect, pay, and better working conditions,” Givan tells me over the phone. “But it’s unusual to see such a large strike focusing on the problem and epidemic of harassment of the industry.”

For workers, striking is effective not only as a means to negotiate for better workplace protections, but also to share their stories with the public. Givan points to recent teachers’ strikes as examples of action that have raised the profile of labor issues, and even resulted in tangible changes.

“[This moment] represents the coming together of successful strikes and the #MeToo movement,” Givan says. “The strike really brings together two recent trends: successful labor actions and the new understanding of the prevalence of sexual harassment.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.