The Sexual Harassment Strikes Against McDonald’s Were Only the Beginning

In a brave stand against workplace sexual misconduct, a group of McDonald’s workers filed 25 sexual harassment charges and lawsuits against the fast food giant at the end of May—adding up to more than 50 suits and complaints that workers have filed alongside Fight for $15, an international organization of low-wage workers, in the last three years. 

(Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons )

The survivors, who are also supported by the ACLU Civil Liberties Union and TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, work at locations across 20 U.S. cities, and the complaints and charges from workers as young as 16 include groping, indecent exposure, propositions for sex and lewd comments by supervisors. In response to speaking up about their harassment, many of the workers claim they were retaliated against with reductions in their hours, denials to requests for overtime pay and termination. 

“I was subjected to a humiliating and intimidating environment at McDonald’s, and managers did nothing to stop it,” Florida worker Jamelia Fairley said in a press release.“To make matters worse, after I reported the sexually-explicit language and inappropriate touching I regularly faced, my hours got cut, making it nearly impossible for me to support my daughter.”

This is the second time the workers have attracted national attention in the past year. In September, fast-food workers at McDonald’s in 10 cities led a history-making strike against sexual violence. Though the fast-food chain claimed to have released a new anti-harassment policy and training at its restaurants, the workers in these new suits claim there has been no actual change within the company. 

“The majority of our clients allege harassment occurring precisely when the company claims it was making these reforms, and we can find no one who has heard of a new policy or training initiative,” Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a press release. “The measures that McDonald’s claims to have implemented, or to have in the works, are better than nothing, but the company has yet to commit to meting out consequences for stores, whether corporate-owned or franchised, where harassment continues to flourish.”

What some fail to remember in a culture inundated with stories about sexual violence is that low-wage workers and women of color are often those most impacted by workplace sexual misconduct. According to a 2016 survey by Hart Research Associates, 40 percent of female fast-food workers experience unwanted sexual behavior on the job—in addition to 21 percent of workers who experienced retaliatory measures after reporting their harassment. 

“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, a Chicago activist and organizer told Ms. at the strikes in September. “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.”

These events came two days after McDonald’s workers across the country striked to bring attention to low pay, sexual harassment and workplace violence. They were supported in their actions by over a dozen 2020 presidential candidates, from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to Senator Cory Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. 

The occasion also marked the beginning of the workers’ Fight for $15 2020 campaign: a national effort to “embrace unions as the best way to tackle inequality and fight racism” and push labor issues to the front and center of debate conversations. In 2016, the group striked before the Republican and Democratic national debates, even becoming the topic of the first question for candidates at a Republican debate in Milwaukee. This year, they striked prior to both Democratic debates in Miami and Detroit. 

Perhaps during this election cycle this important cross-section of labor rights and women’s rights will take center stage as an important topic of discussion for all of the candidates—and maybe the next president will finally deliver an effective blow to the companies trying to silence the voices of survivors. 


Brock Colyar is a former editorial intern at Ms. They were a journalism and gender and sexuality studies major at Northwestern University, where they founded a campus queer and radical feminist magazine and served as a sexual health and assault peer educator. Much of their spare time is spent overthinking intra-feminist politics and Stevie Nicks. You can follow them on Twitter @UnhappyFem (Photo via Colin Boyle/The Daily Northwestern.)