If you visit some McDonald's on Tuesday in St. Louis, San Francisco, L.A., or Chicago, among other U.S. cities, you may find you have to cross a picket line--or you might even find the restaurant closed. That's because employees at some restaurants in these cities will be striking for one day to protest what some have described as a corporate culture where sexual harassment is routinely tolerated. Workers in some restaurants in Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Orlando are also planning to strike.

The strike is partly a result of the #MeToo movement, which has emboldened some women who've silently tolerated routine sexual harassment to speak up as never before. And the fast food industry is notorious for tolerating sexual harassment--one survey of 1,200 people found that 40 percent of female fast-food employees had faced sexual harassment at work.

This is the first time in history that a strike has occurred across several states over sexual harassment. In fact, the only other time workers went on strike over this issue was in 1912, when several hundred female employees of a corset factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan walked out in protest of frequent sexual harassment and generally bad working conditions. 

Next week's strike was voted in after discussions among hundreds of McDonald's workers at committee meetings around the country, AP reports. Strikers are demanding better procedures for receiving and responding to harassment complaints, mandatory anti-harassment training for managers and employees, and a national committee to fight sexual harassment across the entire chain, made up of workers, representatives from both corporate-owned and franchise restaurants, and leaders from national women's groups. 

McDonald's, for its part, seems to believe it already has sexual harassment well in hand. When asked to comment on the strike, a spokesperson for the company sent this statement: "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 everyoneWe 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 went on to say that McDonald's is now engaging third party experts in sexual harassment prevention and response to "evolve our policies, procedures and training." 

"Have you ever had white chocolate?"

But many female employees say that in fact sexual harassment is commonplace at the company. Many of the strike's organizers are among the 15 McDonald's employees around the nation who filed 10 complaints against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describing routine indifference when they reported sexual harassment to their supervisors. In filing their complaints, they had legal assistance paid for by the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.

Tanya Harrel, a McDonald's franchise employee in New Orleans, complained to her boss when a co-worker fondled her buttocks but said the boss didn't take it seriously. When a different co-worker shoved her in a bathroom and attempted to sexually assault her, she was sure there would be no disciplinary action so she didn't report the incident. Kimberley Lawson, an employee at a franchise in Kansas City, Missouri, said her supervisor sent her home early after she refused his sexual advances. She said she reported the incident to her general manager, with no result. 

Breauna Morrow, an employee in St. Louis, said that one co-worker began harassing her almost immediately after she started at her job, telling her what he would do to her and asking, "Have you ever had white chocolate inside you?" When she asked her supervisor what to do, she reports being told, "You will never win that battle." What makes this truly disturbing--especially for parents whose kids work at McDonald's--is that Morrow was only 15.

At the time of the EEOC filings, McDonald's issued a statement similar to the one it sent me after the strike was announced: "McDonald's Corporation takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and are confident our independent franchisees who own and operate about 90 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants will do the same." The company also said it was investigating the alleged incidents.

Nearly four months later the company has had plenty of time to complete that investigation. Did it actually result in any disciplinary actions against the managers who refused to take complaints seriously, or the employees who allegedly committed harassment? If indeed "there is no place for harassment" at McDonald's, you might expect that it did. But company representatives have thus far ignored my questions about what the investigation found or what actions were taken as a result. If I ever get an answer, I'll update this column.

Published on: Sep 13, 2018