On September 18, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities will make history, striking to protest what they say is a persistent failure to enforce company rules against sexual harassment at work. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund will provide legal support for women who have filed sexual harassment claims, and the strike is backed by the Fight for 15 movement of fast-food workers organizing for a living minimum wage. As reported by Fortune, hundreds of employees in worker-led women’s committees organized the strike, “demanding improved procedures for receiving and responding to sexual harassment complaints, plus required anti-harassment training for managers and employees.” It will be the first time McDonald’s workers have taken such action on sexual harassment.
For nearly a year, the #MeToo moment calling out sexual misconduct has revolved mostly around the already-famous: in Hollywood, in media, and in politics. On Friday, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh became the latest to be accused publicly of assault. But #MeToo originally had nothing to do with the rich and powerful. Tarana Burke, a Bronx-based activist, coined the term over a decade before it became a hashtag; at the time, Burke intended it as a response to the prevalent sexual abuse of young, working-class women of color. Sexual harassment and assault has also been a focal point for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organizes farmworkers against the exploitation and sexual harassment of women in the fields. CIW activists recently held a hunger strike in front of the corporate headquarters of Wendy’s over the chain’s refusal to comply with CIW’s Fair Food program, which sets out a program of rules and regulations meant to protect workers from harassment and abuse. “There’s no new news here, aside from the CIW trying to exploit the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement to advance their interests,” a Wendy’s spokeswoman asserted to the Huffington Post in March.
Tuesday’s strike is a reminder that #MeToo’s roots are deep, and they were planted by working-class women. But the strike is still an unusual tactic. “There’s not a deep history of large coordinated strikes over sexual harassment,” Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, told me. “Usually when sexual harassment has been an issue, it’s one of many issues about disrespect and lack of dignity in the workplace and, like with McDonald’s, it’s in the context of a broader campaign of organizing for recognition and respect.”
“There are some key recent cases, not necessarily of strikes but of demands around sexual harassment, the major recent one being the hotel workers in Chicago, with what they called their ‘Hands Off, Pants On’ campaign to get panic button for housekeepers,” Givan said. In October 2017, the Chicago city council approved an ordinance that requires hotel owners to give panic buttons to workers and to develop anti-sexual harassment policies.
Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth College who has participated in a public relations campaign on behalf of striking McDonald’s workers, told me that the earliest example she could find of a strike provoked by sexual harassment dates to 1912. “Corset-makers in Kalamazoo, Michigan were the first that I could find to publicly say that they were walking out to protest physical and verbal harassment by their foreman, in addition to his demands for quid pro quo sex,” she said. According to Orleck, unions were “nervous” about the prospect of taking action on workplace sexual harassment, and preferred behind-the-scenes action as opposed to a strike.
McDonald’s already has a company-wide sexual harassment policy, but in 2016, 15 workers filed formal complaints about its non-enforcement with the National Labor Relations Board. In May, ten more women filed complaints with the NLRB, also over the company’s failure to stop sexual harassment. Many women said they experienced retaliation for reporting the behavior. “The claimants, including a 15-year-old from St. Louis, said in a conference call with journalists that they were ignored, mocked or terminated for reporting the behavior. The accusations included claims that co-workers or supervisors sexually propositioned, groped or exposed themselves to the women,” Reuters reported at the time. Filing a complaint with a Republican-dominated NLRB is a risk, and so is a strike, but women have few other options. Any complaint about sexual harassment puts workers in a vulnerable position.
“All the men feel like they have all the power, so they’ll cut your hours. Or if they can’t, they’ll just make your day a living hell. They make you feel like you are nothing, just because you tried to stand up against them,” said Adriana Alvarez, who has worked at a Chicago McDonald’s for nine years and helped organize Tuesday’s strike.
Strikes can also provoke retaliation against workers. “They may have their hours docked, they may be fired outright,” Orleck said. “But these kinds of actions get much more attention, as they’re intended to, than an individual complaint or even then a kind of legal complaint like those that have been brought before the NLRB,” she added, due to greater media attention.
“There is no place for harassment or discrimination of any kind at McDonald’s,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Andrea Abate said in a statement provided to The New Republic. “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.”
The statement further asserts that the corporation is working with the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network and Seyfarth Shaw at Work, which describes itself as a “legal compliance and consulting services company” on its website, on prevention measures. The choice of consultant is an inadvertent reminder that sexual harassment pervades all industries, and victimizes workers in all income brackets: A Seyfarth Shaw partner, Gerald Maatman, previously represented The Weinstein Company after six actresses filed a class-action lawsuit against it. That wasn’t the first time Maatman had represented an employer in a sexual harassment case, either; according to Variety, he also represented Garban LLC., a brokerage firm, after female employees accused it of rampant gender discrimination. Male employees had reportedly circulated pornography, and hired strippers for company events.
Even if McDonald’s has good intentions—a generous assumption—Givan warns that the “pro forma training” many employers conduct in response to sexual harassment has been shown to have little impact. It does, however, help protect employers from legal liability. “It sounds like they are working with the the typical management-side firm that will help them stay in legal compliance and avoid liability while also trying to deny workers the ability to unionize or have a stronger voice. All with the goal of staying on the right side of the law,” she added.
For some workers, this show of commitment from McDonald’s only underlines how little action the massive corporation has taken until now. “They have the power to stop the sexual harassment. They have more than enough money to educate these managers and let them know what’s right and what’s wrong, which should have been done in the beginning,” said Alvarez. “They have more than enough of everything to fix this.” Taking the chain’s obvious resources into account, McDonald’s workers on Tuesday will take an unprecedented action to demand unprecedented accountability.