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.