Historic McDonald’s Strike Brings Anti-Harassment Fight to the Picket Line

On September 18, McDonald’s workers staged a nationwide strike protesting sexual harassment, with employees walking off the job during the lunch rush in 10 cities. Workers in Chicago, Durham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orlando, San Francisco and St. Louis left their jobs in the first nationwide walkout over sexual harassment in United States history.

The strike built on a legacy of previous labor organizing against sexual harassment, including the historic strike in 1912 of 500 garment workers who left their jobs at the Kalamazoo Corset Company to protest such conditions, as well as a wave of anti-harassment organizing by clerical workers, flight attendants and service workers beginning in the 1970s.

During the McDonald’s walkout, workers shared stories about the sexual harassment they endured.

“No one should be violated and harassed on the job,” an 18-year-old McDonald’s worker from St. Louis named Barbara Johnson said during the events. “It’s sad we have to go on strike to make that point, but we won’t be quiet until McDonald’s listens to our demands and puts a stop to sexual harassment.”

Tanya Harrell was one of the workers who participated in the strike. She was employed at a McDonald’s in Gretna, Louisiana, when she says she was harassed and groped by a manager. When she reported the harassment, her superiors made fun of her for taking the incidents so seriously. “The thing we want to do is hold McDonald’s accountable,” Harrell told Truthout. “When you do things like this, you make people feel uncomfortable. If we have to go on another strike, I’ll do it. We’re going to keep this going.”

Harrell and the other striking workers are demanding that McDonald’s form a committee (full of workers and representatives of national women’s groups) to address sexual harassment and to develop new policies going forward. They also want the company to sever its relationship with Seyfarth Shaw, a Chicago-based law firm that McDonald’s hired to help fight off sexual harassment complaints. The training wing of the law firm has been used by multiple companies caught up in sexual harassment controversies, including the Weinstein Company, after numerous allegations against the producer Harvey Weinstein.

“It’s time for McDonald’s and their franchisees to root out sexual harassment at the workplace,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “The failure to tackle this scourge should compel workers, customers and allies to demand real change and back this strike. As long as harassment stays in the shadows, it will continue to thrive.”

The action comes on the heels of a May lawsuit in which 10 women lodged sexual harassment complaints against some of the company’s franchise restaurants. That lawsuit was organized by Fight for $15 and financially backed by the TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund, which was created by the National Women’s Law Center. The new lawsuit comes a full two years after 15 McDonald’s employees filed a series of sexual harassment complaints against the company.

“Over and over we heard about harassment in stores,” Mary Joyce Carlson, counsel to the Fight for $15, told Truthout. “We made complaints and held events, but nothing changed. When the ‘Me Too’ movement started, we thought, ‘Let’s try to take this on again.’”

McDonald’s and the Trump Administration

Although the restaurants identified in the Fight for $15’s legal complaints are run by franchisees and not directly by the parent company, McDonald’s Corp. is named in the lawsuit as part of a wider effort to hold the corporation responsible for labor violations at specific stores, thereby establishing them as a “joint employer.” That wider effort is a landmark labor lawsuit that has been underway for over three years and was supported by Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

When Trump’s General Counsel at the NLRB, Peter Robb, came to power at the beginning of this year, he called for an end to that trial, asking for a settlement to be made. A settlement wouldn’t have simply marked the end of that trial, it would have also been a major setback in the battle over “joint employment”: It would have provided employees with financial relief while letting McDonald’s off the hook for what happened at individual locations. To the chagrin of McDonald’s Corp., the proposed settlement was rejected by a judge in July, who declared that the deal was missing “certain fundamental elements” and that the company had made “many conflicting statements” throughout the negotiation process.

In 2015, Obama’s NLRB expanded the concept of “joint employment” via the Browning-Ferris ruling, a move that was praised by labor advocates. The decision didn’t determine whether McDonald’s franchises constituted “joint employment,” as each case would have to be decided on its own terms, but it provided a boost to groups like Fight for $15 that were fighting against McDonald’s policies.

Last December, Trump’s NLRB reversed the decision, but the Obama-era ruling was restored in February after an NLRB inspector determined that board member William Emanuel had a conflict of interest and shouldn’t have been allowed to vote on the issue. This month, the NLRB proposed a new version of the rule, one that predictably allows parent companies to avoid responsibilities. In June 2017, Trump Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta rolled back legal recommendations that were intended to establish companies like McDonald’s as “joint employers” with their franchises.

The NLRB doesn’t rule on discrimination cases, but joint employment has factored into sexual harassment cases. For instance, the fast-food chain Wendy’s is currently trying to avoid liability in a sexual harassment case out of Pennsylvania, in which a 15-year-old worker claims she was groped by her manager. Judge Richard Caputo of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied Wendy’s request to dismiss the parent company from the case. Caputo ruled that because Wendy’s exercised control over the specific location, set the employee standards and reviewed the locations records, the lawsuit could proceed with the parent company.

The agency that handles discrimination claims is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After the Harvey Weinstein allegations made headlines last fall, the EEOC updated its guidance on combating workplace harassment and sent it to the White House, where it has been sitting in limbo.

“This is very strange,” Amit Narang, a policy advocate at Public Citizen, told Bloomberg Law in June. “The fact that it’s just been sitting there for so long—and already the review of guidance documents is much less formal than for regulations—has made this a really curious situation.”

An Industry-Wide Problem

Sexual harassment is rampant in the fast-food world, an industry known for its low wages and lack of labor unions. A 2016 report from Hart Research Associates revealed that 40 percent of female fast-food employees experience unwanted sexual behavior on the job. Forty-two percent of women who experienced harassment felt that they needed to simply accept it in order to keep their job. In 2014, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United released a report on the restaurant industry that included information on casual chains like Applebee’s in addition to fast-food spots like McDonald’s. According to that report, almost 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from their coworkers on the job. On the day before the McDonald’s strike, the EEOC sued the fast-food chain Del Taco for sexual harassment and retaliation.

Despite the fact that McDonald’s has been dealing with sexual harassment complaints for years, Carlson told Truthout that the company could easily do more if it really wanted to.

“When they have a problem with bad lettuce going to their stores, they fix it,” said Carlson. “So they can certainly fix their approach to sexual harassment.”