A McDonalds store. (Flickr/Sean MacEntee)

At a New York City rally tomorrow, striking guest workers will announce major March 26 mobilizations outside McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, and at the home of company CEO Don Thompson.

As The Nation has reported, the strikers are students who came to the United States from Asia and Latin America on J-1 visas, which are designated for educational and cultural exchange. Working at McDonald’s stores in central Pennsylvania, they allege they were assigned shifts of up to twenty-five consecutive hours, lived in sub-standard employer-owned housing and faced retaliation and threats when they raised objections or declined work. Organizers from the National Guestworker Alliance, the labor group which has been working closely with the workers since late last month, say that fifteen of the seventeen guest workers employed by McDonald’s franchisee Andy Cheung are participating in the week-old work stoppage.

Cheung did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement e-mailed Friday, McDonald’s said, “We take the well-being of the employees working in McDonald’s restaurants seriously.” The company added that it was “currently investigating this matter,” and would provide franchisees with resources “to ensure they understand both the letter and the spirit of all the requirements of the State Department’s J-1 Visa program, as well as all applicable laws and the expectations for full compliance by McDonald’s.”

“They say they want to know what happened,” striker Alicia Marin told The Nation. But “they don’t ask the real students what happened.”

Strikers are calling on the McDonald’s corporation to meet with them directly, sign a new labor rights agreement with protections against retaliation, and ensure that they are compensated for unpaid wages. Since launching their work stoppage last week, the guest workers have held demonstrations and met with supporters in Pennsylvania and New York. In Pittsburgh, strikers and activists held a “mic check” action inside a store, with the crowd repeating a message from a striker calling for local management to contact McDonald’s national headquarters on their behalf. At tomorrow’s noon Times Square rally, the striking guest workers will be joined by some of the McDonalds workers who staged a one-day strike three months ago. Workers have also filed formal complaints with the federal Department of Labor and with the State Department, which oversees the J-1 visa.

Workers charge that their strike has brought down an additional form of retaliation: Hours after the work stoppage began, they found themselves locked out of the employer-owned basements where they’ve been paying rent to live. NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz told The Nation that one group of workers was told by Cheung’s son Jason, who lived above the basement where they were staying, that Richard Johnson, the general manager of one of Cheung’s McDonald’s locations, needed to speak with them. Minutes later, said Horwitz, Johnson “pulled up shouting at people, screaming ‘Get off my property! Get off my property!’” and “aggressively drove his car, nearly hitting organizers and workers.”

Horwitz said that management ultimately allowed the strikers to re-enter the basements only after they were directed to by the police. (A reporter for The Patriot News also reported that the workers were locked out, and wrote that “a confrontation ensued” between Richard Johnson and Jason Cheung.) “This is just unfortunately the norm with guest workers,” said Horwitz, “that employers have additional means of coercion at their disposal.”

Asked Monday about workers’ allegations that they were locked out of their rooms, and about their demand for a meeting, a McDonald’s spokesperson e-mailed that the company was “still currently investigating this matter.” Meanwhile, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Pennsylvania told The Patriot-News Tuesday that Cheung “made the decision to step down from position” as secretary of its board.

NGA says that the McDonalds guest workers’ experience also demonstrates the need for a different approach at the US State Department. “We want the government to have more control with the J-1 visa,” said Marin, a 25 year-old from Paraguay. “They give all the control to the sponsors, but for the sponsors, it’s just business.”

Susan Pittman, who directs media relations for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said via e-mail that the government has “sent a State Department team to speak with the students and meet with their sponsor,” and that following an investigation, “we will take appropriate action.” Pittman added that the J-1 visa is “NOT a work program,” but rather “meant to be fundamentally a cultural exchange program,” and “gives an opportunity for University students to experience American culture in ways that may not have been available in any other way.” She noted that the program had roughly 91,000 participants in 2012, and that last year the government “expanded the list of ineligible employment categories” and “enhanced oversight and vetting of sponsors and third parties, by conducting intensified inspections of worksites.”

But NGA Executive Director Saket Soni said that the McDonald’s strike should inspire “some soul-searching” at the State Department, and that­—with such programs once again emerging as a key flashpoint in the immigration debate—the government “really needs to recognize how vulnerable guest workers are to retaliation coming through this visa program.” Soni also called for the State Department to “immediately disbar” both franchisee Andy Cheung and GeoVisions, the sponsoring organization for the strikers’ trip, from future participation in the J-1 program.

Reached by phone, GeoVisions CEO Kevin Morgan said the company was “looking into the whole situation” in order to “see exactly what was going on there.” Morgan said that the company had seen “what we think are some discrepancies and some inaccuracies” in media reports relating the students’ allegations. Asked to elaborate, he said that GeoVisions had not reached a final conclusion about those claims, but that “some of the statements about working hours, we haven’t been able to verify those, and I’m not sure that they’re accurate.” He also said that Cheung had “a very good record in terms of hosting students in the past,” and that in recent seasons’ evaluations from J-1 participants assigned to Cheung, “we’ve just had no complaints at all.”

NGA has faulted the State Department for responding to a worker’s complaint by contacting GeoVisions, which it says responded by having a staffer show up unannounced—along with an irate Cheung—in one of the basements where students were staying. Soni charged that the incident revealed “a real misreading by the State Department of how incentives are set up, incentives that in many ways the State Department itself helped set up. The fact is that GeoVisions here is not primarily interested in protecting the students—it’s primarily interested in protecting its continuing business relationship with Andy Cheung.”

Asked about NGA’s allegation that workers felt threatened when his company brought Cheung to visit them, Morgan said, “I’m not sure exactly what happened in this instance as to what the progression was, but we do try to resolve problems by bringing parties together.” As for NGA’s call for the State Department to bar GeoVisions, he said, “That’s something that we’d really have to leave up to the State Department.”

Soni said that the strikers have drawn broad support in central Pennsylvania: “Again and again, the potential divisiveness of the immigration issue really fell away, and people were really talking about how we’re all in this together.” Americans, said Soni, “do expect that if McDonald’s’ golden arches are hanging from the wall, then what happens inside that workplace is something that McDonald’s shares responsibility for.”

Since going on strike, said Marin, “I feel really great.” She explained that while working grueling shifts at McDonald’s, she’d had little opportunity for the “cultural exchange” she’d expected from the J-1 program. But since she and her co-workers walked off the job, said Marin, “Now we have experience in cultural exchange.”

Workers are fighting for paid sick leave—and facing widespread conservative pushback—across the country. Read George Zornick’s take.