Is Ronald McDonald Racist?

David Moberg

A lawsuit from McDonald's workers in Virginia alleges that managers said restaurants' workforces looked "too dark” and that white workers needed to be hired “to get the ghetto out of the store.”

McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion shares legal respon­si­bil­i­ty with three Vir­ginia fran­chise restau­rants and their own­er for ram­pant racial and sex­u­al harass­ment in those work­places, accord­ing to a fed­er­al law­suit that ten for­mer work­ers filed on Jan­u­ary 22 alleg­ing vio­la­tions of their civ­il rights.

They accuse the fran­chise own­er of fir­ing them, despite their man­agers’ acknowl­edge­ment of their good work records, sim­ply in order to reduce the pro­por­tion of non-white employees.

All of a sud­den, they let me go for no oth­er rea­son than I didn’t fit the pro­file’ they want­ed at the store,” said fired plain­tiff Willie Betts. I worked at McDonald’s for almost five years, I was on time every day at 4:00 in the morn­ing to open the store, and I nev­er had a dis­ci­pli­nary write-up. They took away the only source of income I have to sup­port my family.”

McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion, the plain­tiffs said, would not inter­vene to inves­ti­gate or reverse the fran­chise actions after work­ers called and asked for help, a cor­po­rate inspec­tor made a rou­tine vis­it to check on fran­chise com­pli­ance with cor­po­rate pro­ce­dures after the fir­ings or even after a local news­pa­per report­ed the story.

This is a prob­lem that goes far beyond these stores in Vir­ginia,” said Kendall Fells, orga­niz­ing direc­tor of Fast Food For­ward, the New York area branch of the Fight for $15 move­ment. It’s a prob­lem with [the] McDonald’s busi­ness mod­el itself when work­ers at the com­pa­ny have nowhere to turn. McDonald’s has the pow­er to fix this prob­lem, but instead it choos­es to skirt its respon­si­bil­i­ty and hide behind its fran­chise model.”

The work­ers at restau­rants in South Boston and Clarksville, Vir­ginia, say that Michael Simon and his firm, Sow­e­va, began a sys­tem­at­ic plan to reduce the num­ber of black work­ers soon after tak­ing over the three stores in late 2013. Simon told work­ers, the ratio [of black to white employ­ees] was off,” and super­vi­sors told them that the restau­rants were too dark” and that white work­ers need­ed to be hired to get the ghet­to out of the store.” 

When Simon took con­trol of the fran­chis­es, the law­suit alleges, he pro­mot­ed to the top day-to-day man­age­ment of his busi­ness two super­vi­sors who had a long his­to­ry of racial abuse, such as call­ing African-Amer­i­can women bitch” and describ­ing the stores as too ghet­to.” They also sex­u­al­ly harassed both male and female work­ers, includ­ing solic­it­ing sex from employ­ees or touch­ing their legs and but­tocks, accord­ing to the plain­tiffs’ lawsuit. 

Even if the charges only were direct­ed at one fran­chisee in the sys­tem, they would bad­ly dam­age McDonald’s care­ful­ly nur­tured brand image. But the suit names the cor­po­ra­tion itself as essen­tial­ly a joint employ­er. It calls into ques­tion McDonald’s mod­el of try­ing to main­tain tight con­trol over how fran­chis­es oper­ate, includ­ing per­son­nel mat­ters, while attempt­ing to avoid any legal or finan­cial lia­bil­i­ty. Plain­tiff attor­ney Paul Smith says that McDonald’s seeks all of the con­trol and prof­it and none of the responsibility.”

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board has tak­en the same posi­tion as this law­suit, treat­ing the cor­po­ra­tion as a joint employ­er, in a dozen com­plaints filed in Decem­ber charg­ing that McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion and many fran­chis­es with vio­lat­ing the rights of work­ers to orga­nize and take col­lec­tive action to improve their work­ing conditions. 

The law­suit spells out much of the sys­tem that the McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion uses to con­trol its fran­chis­es. The mech­a­nisms include its elab­o­rate train­ing pro­gram with Ham­burg­er Uni­ver­si­ty on the grounds of the company’s sub­ur­ban Chica­go head­quar­ters at its pin­na­cle and detailed guide­lines on qual­i­ty, ser­vice and clean­li­ness,” and exten­sive busi­ness man­u­als for fran­chisees (cov­er­ing per­son­nel man­age­ment, book­keep­ing and oth­er areas). The bible” for fran­chisees, the Oper­a­tions and Train­ing Man­u­al, is a detailed guide to hir­ing, dis­ci­pline, diver­si­ty, nondis­crim­i­na­tion and sex­u­al harass­ment that the cor­po­ra­tion can uni­lat­er­al­ly change at any time, the law­suit alleges.

The McDonald’s fran­chise agree­ment grants the cor­po­ra­tion pow­er to send in cor­po­rate busi­ness con­sul­tants,” who review in great detail all oper­a­tions of each restau­rant, includ­ing staffing deci­sions, and pro­vide rec­om­men­da­tions that are manda­to­ry for each fran­chise. In addi­tion, the cor­po­rate office sends in mys­tery shop­pers” month­ly to secret­ly observe and report back on even the most minute details of operations.

Fells indi­cat­ed that after the fir­ings, some sup­port­ers of the Fight for 15 at the Vir­ginia restau­rants had con­tact­ed the local NAACP, which has been a major sup­port­er along with the Wash­ing­ton Lawyers Com­mit­tee for Civ­il Rights. The Fight for 15, which invit­ed some of the plain­tiffs to a con­ven­tion last year, has now set up a nation­wide hot­line for McDonald’s work­er com­plaints: 8557292869.

Win­ning a law­suit and dam­ages would bring relief for the dis­charged work­ers and strike a blow at prac­tices not only at McDonald’s but also at many oth­er fran­chis­es. But fired cashier Kat­ri­na Stan­field says that work­ers also need their own voice at work. Nev­er dis­ci­plined, regard­ed by her boss as a good work­er,” she was fired for being black, she says, leav­ing her out of work for five months and afraid she might lose the home shared by her sis­ter and both women’s children. 

I still don’t under­stand why McDonald’s did noth­ing to get our jobs back,” she said. I left a detailed mes­sage on the cor­po­rate hot line, but McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion is con­cerned about the bot­tom line, not the work­ers. If we had a union, we could have done something.”

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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