#MeToo Hits Fast Food: Why McDonald’s Workers Are Out on a Historic Strike Today

Rachel Johnson September 18, 2018

McDonald's workers are on strike in 10 cities to protest sexual harassment on the job. (JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

Work­ers at McDonald’s are set to walk out of work today in ten U.S. cities: Chica­go, St. Louis, Durham, Kansas City, Los Ange­les, Mia­mi, Mil­wau­kee, New Orleans, Orlan­do and San Francisco.

While a string of fast food strikes has hit chains in recent years, this time work­ers aren’t walk­ing out for high­er wages, but for respect and free­dom from harass­ment in an indus­try known for ram­pant abuse.

In the non-union­ized fast food indus­try, marked by high turnover, low wages, and poor to non-exis­tent ben­e­fits, sex­u­al harass­ment is endem­ic. A recent study of fast food restau­rants such as Taco Bell and McDon­ald’s found that 40 per­cent of work­ers report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing sex­u­al harass­ment at work. A full 60 per­cent of the women who report­ed mul­ti­ple occur­rences of harass­ment said they felt pres­sure to accept the abuse because they could not afford to quit their job.

McDonald’s has faced a slew of law­suits relat­ed to sex­u­al harass­ment in recent years. In Octo­ber 2016, Fight for $15, the group advo­cat­ing for min­i­mum-wage increas­es in the ser­vice sec­tor, filed 15 sex­u­al harass­ment claims with the Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion, accus­ing the McDon­alds cor­po­ra­tion and fran­chisees of fail­ing to pro­tect — and some­times retal­i­at­ing against — work­ers report­ing harassment.

Accord­ing to the Nation­al Women’s Law Cen­ter, an orga­ni­za­tion sup­port­ing the strik­ing work­ers, McDonald’s man­age­ment rou­tine­ly ini­ti­at­ed or dis­re­gard­ed” instances of sex­u­al harass­ment. Among the inci­dents report­ed by the Cen­ter: A 15-year-old cashier in St. Louis who was asked by an old­er male employ­ee: Have you ever had white choco­late inside you?” When the 15-year-old report­ed the harass­ment to her man­ag­er, she was told, you will nev­er win that bat­tle.” In New Orleans, a female work­er com­plained about a co-work­er grop­ing her, to which her man­ag­er respond­ed that she should take it to the next lev­el” with him. This same work­er also endured an attempt­ed sex­u­al assault, which she did not report because of her past experiences.

By fund­ing the legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in these cas­es, we hope to help ensure that these charges will be a cat­a­lyst for sig­nif­i­cant change,” Sharyn Tejani, Direc­tor of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, said in a state­ment. Few women work­ing in low-wage jobs have the means or the finan­cial secu­ri­ty to chal­lenge sex­u­al harass­ment. As shown by these charges and thou­sands of intakes we have received at the Fund from women in every indus­try, those who report their abuse are often fired, demot­ed or mocked — and since noth­ing is done to stop the harass­ment, noth­ing changes.”

The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund is the lat­est exam­ple of the #MeToo movement’s sol­i­dar­i­ty with low-wage work­ers. The Fund, which arose as a response to the sex­u­al harass­ment faced by women in Hol­ly­wood, has now amassed over 200 vol­un­teer lawyers, and has pledged to sup­port the fac­to­ry work­er, the wait­ress, the teacher, the office work­er.” The orga­ni­za­tion was also led to this cross-class alliance in part by expres­sions of sol­i­dar­i­ty from work­ers across sec­tors, includ­ing a let­ter signed by 700,000 female farm­work­ers asso­ci­at­ed with the Alian­za Nacional de Campesinas, and a 2017 Take Back the Work­place” march in Los Angeles.

The strike is his­toric. While labor orga­niz­ing cam­paigns have often made sex­u­al harass­ment a focal point, this strike marks the first mul­ti-state action devot­ed sole­ly to the issue. 

Work­ers orga­niz­ing against sex­u­al harass­ment at McDonald’s can draw from a long tra­di­tion. In the 1830s, one of the first labor strug­gles in the ear­ly phas­es of Amer­i­can indus­tri­al­iza­tion cen­tered around address­ing the sex­u­al harass­ment and assault faced by female mill work­ers in Low­ell, Massachusetts.

In one of the first efforts to orga­nize work­ers at a restau­rant chain, the Hotel Employ­ees and Restau­rant Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (HERE) launched a six-year cam­paign dur­ing the 1960s to orga­nize Play­boy Bun­nies. The cam­paign cen­tered around com­bat­ing the sex­ist work­place of the Play­boy Clubs, an envi­ron­ment root­ed in Hugh Hefner’s ethos that women should be obscene and not heard.”

In the book Fem­i­nism Unfin­ished, Dorothy Sue Cob­ble writes that tena­cious HERE orga­niz­er Myra Wolf­gang told reporters the Bun­nies would bite back” against Playboy’s sex­ist work­ing con­di­tions. And that’s just what they did. Accord­ing to Cob­ble, man­age­ment ulti­mate­ly agreed to a nation­al con­tract promis­ing to pay wages to Bun­nies (pre­vi­ous­ly the women relied sole­ly on tips) and allow Bun­nies more dis­cre­tion over uni­form design, cus­tomer inter­ac­tions, and com­pa­ny appear­ance standards.”

While his­tor­i­cal­ly unions have (albeit some­times unsuc­cess­ful­ly) been a bul­wark against sex­u­al harass­ment, fast-food empires like McDonald’s have always been closed off to unions. With­out the pro­tec­tion of a union, fast food work­ers are par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to harass­ment. But, accord­ing to sex­u­al harass­ment expert Lin Far­ley, the equa­tion can also be reversed: Harass­ment can be a tool to pre­vent union­iza­tion and col­lec­tive work­er strug­gle. You have fast-food man­agers sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly using sex­u­al harass­ment to keep turnover high, so they don’t have to union­ize, they don’t have to give high­er wages,” Far­ley told On the Media.

That might be chang­ing, how­ev­er. With a more class-con­scious #MeToo move­ment, a wave of mil­i­tant teach­ers’ strikes, anti-sex­u­al harass­ment cam­paigns and strikes in the major­i­ty female hotel indus­try, it’s clear that women are fed up with abuse in the work­place. The McDonald’s strike shows that this increased orga­niz­ing may soon trans­late into more wins for labor in the most exploit­ed sec­tors like the fast food indus­try, where class strug­gle is now on the menu.

Rachel John­son is a writer based in Chica­go. She holds a mas­ter’s degree in U.S. his­to­ry from North­west­ern University.
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