On Tuesday, the restaurant located at the McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago did not open its doors for the usual lunchtime rush of locals ordering Big Macs, McChickens and Happy Meals. Instead, it locked them firmly in the face of its own brave women workers, who led a historic strike that day against widespread sexual harassment at the fast-food chain.
Workers gathered in the Windy City marched from a local park with blue tape over their mouths that read “ON STRIKE” and “#METOO.” Once they made it to the corporate chain’s headquarters, women broke the silence about the widespread sexual harassment they’ve encountered beyond those locked front doors—and posted their demands there for one of the world’s largest employers.
“I’ve got two granddaughters, and they need a better world,” local activist Jill Ferguson told Ms. in Chicago. “They need a place where this doesn’t even happen—where we don’t have to be out here screaming and shouting because nobody is listening.”
Joined by workers and in alliance with women’s and labor rights groups from nine other U.S. cities—including Los Angeles, Miami and St. Louis—the strike, modeled after a 1912 action organized by garment workers protesting sexual exploitation by male foremen in Kalamazoo, loudly drew attention to allegations of groping, lewd comments and propositions for sex behind the chain’s counters.
Chanting phrases such as “Keep your burger! Keep your fries! We don’t need your sexist lies!” and “Bad-da-bum-bah-bah, not loving it!” the protesting workers became the first to strike in protest of sexual harassment in over 100 years and the first-ever to do so as part of a nationwide, multi-city strike against such misconduct.
“If we don’t stand together,” one McDonald’s employee of over 20 years told Ms., “then we’re going to fall for anything.”
— HealingtoAction (@HealingToAction) September 18, 2018
According to a 2016 survey by Hart Research Associates, 40 percent of female fast-food workers experience unwanted sexual behavior on the job; 21 percent of them faced retaliatory measures by their supervisors when they reported, and 42 percent said they felt forced to accept the attacks out of fear of losing their jobs.
The women’s committees from Fight for $15, an international organization of low-wage workers agitating for labor rights, organized the strike in response to the refusal of McDonald’s and some of its franchises to respond to over two dozen sexual harassment charges that have been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, some by workers as young as 15.
Tuesday’s strikers are no longer accepting that corporate silence, and they plan to continue their activism until their demands are met. As the #MeToo movement continues to spark conversation and action, from the silver screen to the golden arches, they aren’t backing down.
“I have worked at McDonald’s for 11 years, and am a single mother of three,” one Los Angeles McDonald’s employee told Ms. “I was sexually harassed by a customer, and I am not satisfied by McDonald’s because they didn’t do anything. I told one of the managers, and they said: ‘What do you think I’m going to do? We can do nothing.'”
Strikers are calling on the company to “strengthen and enforce” its zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment; hold mandatory trainings for managers and employees in order to “create a safe and effective system for receiving and responding to complaints” and form an anti-sexual harassment committee comprised of workers, corporate and franchise representatives and members of leading national women’s rights groups; and to stop working with law firm Seyfarth Shaw at Work, which is currently defending The Weinstein Company against the allegations that launched the #MeToo movement. The Fight for $15 also established a #MeTooMcDonalds hotline after the protests, which fast-food workers who have experienced sexual harassment on the job can call at (844) 384-4495 to get free and confidential legal information and support.
In the wake of the explosive #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, the strike served as a powerful reminder that low-income women have often formed its frontline.
“The #MeToo movement has always been rooted in the communities most impacted by gender-based violence, which is the communities of women of color and low-wage workers,” Karla Altmayer, the co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, told Ms. “We’re really glad that the #MeToo movement has had a high-profile as a result of the folks in Hollywood, but we were always doing this work beforehand and we continue to do this work now.”
Annelise Orleck, a professor at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, further put the strike into context in a conversation with Ms. “While it is historic, it is part of a much larger movement,” she explained. “They’re out there garnering attention by being on the street.”
Orleck likened the McDonald’s workers to other low-wage and working-class women who saw victories in the wake of #MeToo but had been agitating for justice for years prior—including hotel workers in Chicago, who recently won a battle for panic buttons, and garment workers in Bangladesh, who walked out of work last year to demand that the International Labor Organization mandate zero tolerance for gender-based violence at work.
“This is the new labor movement,” Orleck declared, pointing out the ways in which economic justice hinges on gender justice. “This is a women’s movement.”
Kohinur Khyum, Miranda Martin and Victoria Sheber contributed reporting.