The Strike at McDonald’s Is About More Than Fighting Abuse—It’s About Workplace Democracy

Eli Day

Striking McDonald’s workers in Detroit are fighting for more “power in the workplace,” says Rashida Tlaib. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Tues­day, over 1,000 peo­ple gath­ered for a strike action at a McDon­ald’s loca­tion on Detroit’s East Side. The work­ers, who were fight­ing for basic work­place dig­ni­ty, a fair wage and a union, showed that they’re ready to raise hell in the face of injus­tice by stand­ing together. 

That’s how Patri­cia Mose­ley, who has worked for McDonald’s for 34 years, describes her expe­ri­ence of sol­i­dar­i­ty dur­ing the strike. We always get each other’s backs,” Mose­ley says. When I see peo­ple out here, doing the same thing I’m doing, it makes me feel like Hey, every­body can do this.’ Come and join us. You ain’t got­ta be scared.” 

Ignit­ed by the hideous­ly com­mon expe­ri­ence of work­place sex­u­al harass­ment, the strike was a pow­er­ful dis­play of work­ing-class force in an indus­try where women and peo­ple of col­or make up the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of non-man­age­r­i­al workers. 

This is huge,” Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.), who attend­ed the strike, said in a state­ment to In These Times. Fast food workers…stood up against cor­po­rate greed to demand human dig­ni­ty in the work­place. These cor­po­ra­tions can­not oper­ate with­out the work­ers, who deserve to make a liv­ing that allows them to pro­vide for them­selves and their fam­i­ly. They deserve work­places free of sex­u­al harass­ment and violence.”

Accord­ing to a new class-action law­suit, McDonald’s is drenched in a cul­ture of sex­u­al harass­ment.” And as NPR reports, more than 50 claims and charges of harass­ment of female employ­ees are pend­ing against McDon­ald’s.” But the issue stretch­es far beyond the gold­en arch­es: The indus­try as a whole is awash with harass­ment and abuse. A 2016 poll found that 40 per­cent of women in the fast food indus­try have expe­ri­enced unwant­ed sex­u­al behav­iors on the job.” 

The poll also found that work­ers who dare to speak out often face the boss­es’ wrath as a result. A lot of women are scared to come out and speak,” Mose­ley says, because they don’t know if they’re going to lose their job.” Mose­ley eas­i­ly spots what’s wrong with this pic­ture, and, just as impor­tant­ly, what’s miss­ing. If I don’t have a union, I can’t say noth­ing,” Mose­ley adds. That’s what a union is there for. To back you up.”

The issues fac­ing Mose­ley and her cowork­ers come down to an imbal­ance of pow­er. Because work­ers have no real pow­er in the work­place, this puts them in the impos­si­ble posi­tion of either being fright­ened into silence or, if they decide to stick up for them­selves, risk being fired and plunged into eco­nom­ic uncertainty.

But when work­ers took the dra­mat­ic action of walk­ing off the job on Tues­day, they weren’t alone. Loved ones, friends and sup­port­ers from the neigh­bor­hood hit the streets along­side them. And fel­low work­ers from dif­fer­ent indus­tries — jan­i­tors, nurs­es, house­keep­ers, lab tech­ni­cians and more — also stood with the strik­ers, embody­ing the old max­im that work­ers’ fates are tied together. 

After all, their adver­saries are unmis­tak­ably com­mon: a cor­po­rate hier­ar­chy that strips work­ers of pow­er while harass­ing, mis­treat­ing and bark­ing orders at them, all while pay­ing them the low­est wages pos­si­ble. In order to win against these shared injus­tices, McDonald’s work­ers are show­ing how to band togeth­er to demand a bet­ter world. 

That’s what we’re fight­ing for, right there,” says Romell Fra­zier, a 31-year-old orga­niz­er with the Michi­gan Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee who has worked in fast-food for rough­ly sev­en years. Pow­er in the work­place. Respect in the workplace.”

That demand for more work­er pow­er ties togeth­er the many fights for greater work­place democ­ra­cy roil­ing the coun­try. Whether it’s teach­ers walk­ing out in Chica­go or GM work­ers who went on a mas­sive strike at plants nation­wide, work­ing peo­ple are demand­ing more of a say in how they spend their lives on the job. 

We just want to bring that to the fore­front,” Fra­zier says of the need for more democ­ra­cy at McDonald’s. While the com­pa­ny makes bil­lions and billions…the work­ers are in here mak­ing slave wages and still being harassed. They feel like the work­ers don’t have a voice in the work­place. So that’s why [preda­to­ry man­agers or cowork­ers] think they can get away with [abuse].”

Rep. Tlaib points to a clear solu­tion: Ensur­ing work­ers have more pow­er in the work­place” will help bring equi­ty and jus­tice in the work­place. Work­ers deserve to have a say in deci­sions that are being made, they deserve to be treat­ed fair­ly, and they deserve ade­quate pay and benefits.”

That’s what we’re fight­ing for,” Mose­ley says. Fif­teen dol­lars an hour. A union.” And by stand­ing togeth­er, she explains, we won’t have to strug­gle no more. We can fight this thing.”

ELI DAY was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He’s also a Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in Vox, Cur­rent Affairs, Moth­er Jones, and the New Repub­lic, among others.

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