Standing outside McDonald’s on St. Charles Rock Road in St. Louis, Missouri, 61-year old Bettie Douglas joined over 100 people in a chant: “Hold the burgers, hold the fries, keep your hands off our thighs.”
The crowd, made up of restaurant employees in and out of uniform, local community activists in brightly colored T-shirts, and members of the clergy, gathered on Tuesday at lunch time to protest the fast-food chain’s handling of workplace sexual harassment.
“We were all saying, ‘This has been going on too long,’” Douglas said in a phone call after the action. “We’ve tried to address it and we haven’t had any luck, so we are going to take it to the streets.’”
The walkout was organized by members of local Fight for $15 Women’s Committees, which campaign for better pay and more equitable workplaces for low-wage workers through collective action. The group says harassment at McDonald’s has long been a pervasive nationwide problem; hundreds of McDonald’s workers in 10 cities across the country joined Douglas in protest during the day. But it was the eruption of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 that pushed members of the Women’s Committees to take action.
Kim Lawson, a 25-year-old McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri, is a leader in her local Women’s Committee. She said the vote to strike was unanimous; she even participated in it herself. When Lawson started working at McDonald’s three years ago, she says a coworker repeatedly made sexual advances, tried to give her gifts, and touched her without her consent. But management didn’t take action, even after she complained. In fact, Lawson said a shift manager also harassed her by making lewd comments and advances. Her only recourse was to change her schedule and hope for the best.
“It made it harder to do my job, because I had to watch my surroundings constantly,” Lawson said. “I felt like I was all alone, that it was just me who this was happening too. I felt like it was not a big deal to my employer and they don’t care because you are expendable to them. That made me feel very small.”
Tuesday’s actions also came four months after ten McDonald’s workers filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describing the harassment they dealt with on the job, as well as the retaliation they faced for speaking up. The complaints reviewed by The Nation share stories of being forced into bathroom stalls by coworkers who exposed themselves; of managers who said things like, “How many dicks can [you] fit in [your] hole?”; and of workers fired for speaking up.
A 27-year old cashier and crew worker from Gretna, Louisiana, who earns $8.15 an hour, wrote in her complaint that a coworker continually used sexually explicit language and made inappropriate propositions, like asking her to touch his penis. On one occasion, he reached his arms around her and grabbed her while she was doing the dishes.
“I felt like there was nothing I could do to make [his ] conduct stop,” she wrote. ”I tried to avoid him and not talk to him, but he continued to touch me. I thought about quitting my job, but I decided not to because I needed the money.”
Multiple complainants say their reports were ignored, or they were retaliated against for speaking up by having their hours cut, being disciplined for minor infractions, and even getting fired.
A 23-year-old cashier and crew trainer in Chicago said she was physically and verbally harassed by both a manager and security guard when she started working at McDonald’s in January 2018. She complained, but no action was taken. In April 2018, she rebuffed the manager’s advances and he sent her home early.
“I was scheduled to work that day until 3 pm, but he sent me home at 8:30 am—cutting 6-and-a-half hours off of my shift in retaliation for me pushing back against his harassment,” her complaint stated. The next day when she arrived at work at 7 am, he sent her home immediately: another day of lost wages.
Sexual harassment is pervasive in the fast-food industry. A 2017 report from the Center for American Progress found that sexual harassment is most common in low-wage sectors with high levels of gender inequality such as food service and retail, with women of color disproportionately affected. According to a 2016 national survey conducted by Hart Research Associates, 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry report facing sexual harassment on the job and 42 percent feel forced to accept abuse because they can’t afford to lose their job.
Sarah Fleisch Fink, the director of workplace policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families, said fast-food workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment because there aren’t many worker protections in place and few workers have a financial cushion to fall back on.
“Women in the fast-food industry are being paid the minimum wage,” she said. “They are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t earn enough money to support themselves and their families. These are women who really don’t have very many options. They face an impossible choice between keeping quiet to keep their jobs or reporting what they experienced knowing that nothing might happen, or retaliation.”
This strike is part of a larger effort to get McDonald’s to address sexual harassment in a meaningful way. The workers are hoping they can attract enough attention from McDonald’s, and from the public, to spur change. Their goals include the formation of an anti–sexual harassment committee, actual enforcement of the company’s stated zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, mandatory trainings for managers and employees, and a hotline where employees can make reports.
It’s been a long time coming. In 2016, Fight for $15 filed sexual harassment complaints on behalf of 15 McDonald’s workers with similar stories of hostile work environments and retaliation for reporting.
When asked for comment, McDonald’s sent a statement via e-mail: “There is no place for harassment or discrimination of any kind at McDonald’s. Since our founding, we’ve been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone. We have policies, procedures and training in place that are specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment at our company and company-owned restaurants, and we firmly believe that our franchisees share this commitment.”
Mary Joyce Carlson, a labor attorney who works closely with Fight for $15, said she doesn’t doubt that McDonald’s has a sexual-harassment policy, but a policy doesn’t matter if it’s not enforced.
“We filed those cases [in 2016] and there was a fair amount of interest, but we really didn’t manage to change very much at that time,” Carlson said. “When there was lettuce contamination, McDonald’s certainly got right to work solving the problem. The main point here is that, if this is an issue that existed on any other front and was taken seriously by McDonald’s, they would work with the franchises to design a program to address it.”
“Women are fed up,” said Lawson. “It’s not just happening in Hollywood. It’s regular, everyday workers who are being harassed. The more we keep fighting against this, the more they will be forced to make change.”
After the strike, Douglas was also feeling hopeful. She said the strike was long overdue, and even if the company isn’t listening, customers seem to be.
“A lot of the customers would stop and listen to what we’re saying,” Douglas said. “Some even chanted with us a bit. This is a problem that has been going on for a long time, and it seemed like we brought it to people’s attention. If nothing changes, there will be more strikes. Most definitely, and we are going to continue until there is a change.”