#MeToo Under the Golden Arches at McDonald’s

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

While the Kavanaugh hearings were going on, there was a second #MeToo-inflected development: A strike against sexual harassment at McDonald’s, on September 18. This strike did in fact get decent coverage, but did not receive the overwhelming interest and attention that the Kavanaugh hearings did, from the press and the political class generally. In this post, I’ll do a brief review of the McDonald’s coverage, and close with some personal commentary on both series of events. (This post is not about #MeToo per se, which has quite a history starting with Tarana Burke; it didn’t just start with Alyssa Milano and Harvey Weinstein, rather in the same way the #BlackLivesMatter didn’t start with @Deray.) Let me note in passing that an earlier public relations effort in March just didn’t work out:

With that, to the coverage. Fair warning: This is an enormous topic, so I’m just going to meander! CNBC:

Hundreds of McDonald’s employees, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, demonstrated outside company headquarters in Chicago on Tuesday to draw attention to alleged sexual harassment at work.

Workers staged the one-day strike across 10 cities in what organizers said would be the first multistate walkout protesting sexual harassment, according to Fight for $15, a workers’ rights group organized to help raise the minimum wage.

Carrying signs that read “#MeToo McDonald’s,” hundreds of cooks and cashiers walked out on their jobs to gather and speak out, organizers said.

(That word “emboldened” is a Beltway word and, to me, a tell; I very much doubt that Fight for $15 needs endogenous sources working as a sort of trickle-down effect to become emboldened about anything, given their history; it looks to me more like they’re using a tool that came to hand.)

The majority of restaurant managerial positions are held by men, while women make up the bulk of lower-status, lower-paying positions, according to the Culinary Institute of America. This difference in power can create an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored or even normalized. Employees can often feel uncomfortable bringing up the harassment or may be fearful about losing their job by filing complaints[1], restaurant industry leaders and human resource managers said during a panel discussion hosted by the institute earlier this year.

Some 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry reported facing sexual harassment on the job, according to a 2016 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates. The most common forms of harassment included sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions, unwanted hugging or touching and questions about sexual interests or being told unwanted information about others’ sexual interests.

According to Hart Research, 45 percent of women in fast food cited health problems such as anxiety, depression and issues sleeping due to the harassment they faced while on the job.

(The coverage I can find uses gender-neutral language: “workers”,”strikers.” A quick sample of images shows the strikers were predominantly, although not entirely, women[2]. C’mon, guys!)

Speaking of power differentials, Vox had an explainer:

Low-wage workers need more power on the job, and that’s what strikers are demanding of McDonald’s. They want procedures for receiving and responding to harassment complaints, mandatory anti-harassment training for managers and employees, and the formation of a national committee to address sexual harassment, composed of workers, representatives from corporate and franchise stores, and leaders of national women’s groups.

In addition to these demands, raising wages is a necessity to fighting sexual harassment. A stronger social safety net[3] would reduce the costs of retaliation for women who come forward; a democratic workers’ organization — in short, a union — would offer a collective vehicle to overcome the high costs of fighting this problem individually.

These workers are up against the company’s war chest. McDonald’s is armed with battalions of PR firms and lawyers and political allies and money, while workers have their numbers and the company’s reliance on them to produce profit. Mcdonald’s responded to today’s action with an announcement that it would be “partnering with Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN, and the legal-compliance firm Seyfarth Shaw at Work.”

(Hilariously, Seyfarth Shaw is also defending the Weinstein Co.) What are their demands? The New York Times:

The protests on Tuesday were organized by Fight for $15, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. The group tries to organize fast food workers and advocates improving their pay and working conditions. In May, with the group’s support, 10 McDonald’s employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that male supervisors had made unwelcome advances against them and had retaliated against those who complained.

The goal of the protests was to pressure McDonald’s to institute stronger policies to protect workers from sexual harassment at its more than 14,000 stores in the United States. The demands included better training programs for all workers, a more effective way to report complaints and a committee dedicated to addressing sexual harassment issues.

(These are similar to the demands outlined by Tarana Burke.) Note also that the power differential is not only between workers and managers, but between workers and customers:

Holding employers accountable for sexual harassment in the workplace can be difficult, although they can be held liable if workers can show they were forced to work in a hostile environment where their complaints were ignored or dismissed.

The problem is especially acute in restaurants, where policing bad customer behavior can be hard for workers who depend on tips. The challenges are compounded in the fast food sector because major companies may not consider themselves liable for bad behavior at individual stores.

(One obvious way to fix that would be to raise wages and eliminate tips, as some restaurants have successfully done.) From the Intercept:

This sort of endemic work-based abuse — affecting a largely low-wage and precarious workforce — cannot be fought with the tactics with which #MeToo found early success. Celebrated and professionally established women calling out powerful perpetrators gave important voice to the struggle against patriarchal violence and slayed some formidable giants. But it was never scalable as a tactic for workers without an audience and with little leverage over their employers. The decision to strike, therefore, is a crucial deployment of the one leverage workers do have: a collective and visible withdrawal of labor.

From USA Today, a really good round-up:

Kim Lawson had been working the register, taking orders, and bagging burgers at McDonald’s for two years when she says the sexual harassment began.

It was 2017. There were two men – a shift manager who uttered lewd comments and a co-worker who made sexual overtures and touched Lawson inappropriately.

In May, Lawson became one of 10 McDonald’s employees to file a harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And while she says the #MeToo movement “affected me greatly,” that was not the spark that turned the 25-year-old mother based in Kansas City, Missouri, into an activist.

“The fact that I was angry, that’s what made me file,” says Lawson, who helped organize a national one-day strike by McDonald’s workers last month to call out workplace sexual harassment. “It happens to more than just wealthy people, and it’s going to continue to happen as long as no one does anything about it.”

While organizations like like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is handling the EEOC case, do good work, I’d argue that they, too, face issues of scale. To their great credit, they understand this:

[F]rom the beginning, [[Time’s Up] said, its mission was to assist all women. In a posted “letter of solidarity,” the group voiced support for its “sisters” in industries ranging from housekeeping to factory work.

“So much of the power of the #MeToo movement comes from … the public outing” of some high-profile harassers and equally well-known accusers, [California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez] says. But there’s less interest “when you have workers that, quite frankly, people don’t care as much about. And you have employers that nobody’s heard of, or supervisors and companies that nobody’s heard of. It just doesn’t have the same … appeal for the broader media.”

Finally, closing with Jacobin:

It’s been a long time since a strike in the US directly targeted sexual harassment. One hundred and six years ago, young women garment workers in Kalamazoo, Michigan walked off their jobs, joining a wave of strikes in the century’s second decade that spread from New York City to Chicago, Boston to Cleveland, Philadelphia to Kalamazoo, and back to Brooklyn.

These strikes were historic because many male labor leaders believed that young women could not organize, and that they would not hold solidarity long enough to wage a successful strike. But the Kalamazoo strike was also groundbreaking because the strikers spoke out about sexual harassment, demanding that foremen be fired for extorting sex from young women workers.

So, a great story, covered reasonably (see also The Nation, the Guardian, The New Republic, the San Francisco Examiner, and Eater, among others). And also absolutely drowned out by the Kavanaugh circus!

* * *

Speaking for myself only: Skipping over ideological or polemical issues (“Believe women!”, “a special place in hell”), this was my reaction at seeing the images of protesters on Capitol Hill and in Washington, DC, during the Kavanaugh hearings: I felt “These are my people.” Posture, gestures, facial expressions, clothing, accessories, hair-styles…. A summation of class and cultural markers told me the protesters were the sort of people I would meet in the coffee shop of my university town. Good people, despite their NPR tote bags and trust in the New York Times. Angry people, with a lot to be angry about. Also, the people Thomas Frank anatomizes in Listen, Liberal!. The class of people, in short, from whom I spring and to whom it is my difficult ambition to be a class traitor. When I look at images of the McDonald’s strikers, I do not see my people. However, in the strikers I also see the class of people who, if #MeToo is to achieve more than reformist goals, must and should be, as we say, centered[4], even as the 10%-ers on The Hill and elsewhere must and should be decentered. In its coverage, the press — themselves good and angry people, my people, 10%-ers — centered Kavanaugh protesters on The Hill, and decentered McDonald’s strikers at the workplace. I think those priorities should be inverted. I don’t think I’ve succeeded at doing that here, because the topic is enormously complicated, but I’d like do my bit and keep at it. My $0.02.

NOTES

[1] This shows why a Jobs Guarantee plus checking accounts at a Post Office bank are universal concrete material benefits that would greatly empower working class women.

[2] Which is odd. From The Intercept: “A 2014 survey from the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that nearly 80 percent of women in the industry had experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers, as had 70 percent of men. Eighty percent of women and s55 percent of men reported sexual harassment from customers. LGBTQ workers were particularly affected, the survey found.” Power is gender fluid….

[3] See note [1]. And readers know I hate the phrase “safety net.” I don’t see why life should be like a tightrope walk.

[4] For one thing, there are more of them. For another, their suffering, on the whole and on the average, is greater. See life expectancy figures, or home ownership figures, or health figures, or whatever.

APPENDIX

There have also been a rolling series of strikes and industrial actions against McDonald’s in the UK, winning pay-raises, along with strikes against other precariat-style companies like Uber/UberEats, Deliveroo, Wetherspoons, and TGI Fridays; interestingly, #FightFor15 tactics seem to have crossed the Pond. Best headline: “Wetherspoons’ boss Tim Martin accuses pub staff of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ as they join McStrike over pay” (Mirror). That’s the stuff to give the troops!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

11 comments

  1. DJG

    Thanks, Lambert. Where are the comments? Hmmm.

    I will point out that I don’t eat at fast-food places because (A) I live in Chicago where we have (B) pizza, Greek “joints,” and felafel. Don’t tell the anti-Muslim crowd. And McDo’s food is plain bad, although, arguably, a step up from Starbucks, which is clots of sugar and liquid burned coffeebeans.

    Observations: Sexual harassment is rampant. Also, I have had coffeehouse employees tell me that the customers often aren’t a great prize, either.

    Part of the problem? Tipping. Tipping sets up a skewed social relation, and in a country all about money, and these days also about not about paying fairly for a service given, the tip is part of a system of bribery / harassment. And tips as a business practice paper over many of the bad habits of U.S. management.

    So: I’m saying Time for $19 / h. Time to end tipping.

    [I was just reading something with Nietzsche quoted extensively about his stay in Turin some 100 years ago. Yes, Friedrich. And he liked that 100 years ago or more, there was no tipping in Turin. There still isn’t. We are citizens, not servants.]

    Reply
    1. HotFlash

      Agree that tipping is a huge problem. I have friends*, though, who work in hospitality who really, really like tipping — depends very much on the venue they work in, and how the tips are divided. When tips are the $$ or % added to a debit or credit transaction rather than cash-under-the-plate, the server is dependent on the employer to allocate them, even to know what the $$ are. Many complaints and even some suits about that.

      In some places the tips are pooled and split among the staff so as to include the kitchen staff. My sources in the biz tell me that this is more usual in places where bus staff clear the tables rather than the servers. And that if kitchen (ie, unseen) staff shares in the tip pool, the owners can pay them a little less — surprise. So, yeah, tipping seems to be a way to allow both restaurant owners and their customers to lord (or lady) it over the servers, as well as an injustice to unseen staff — cooks, kitchen prep, cleaners, dishwashers, etc.

      But I digress, I really just wanted to point out that Mickey Dee’s does not have tipping, so that is a red herring here.

      * DIsclosure: I have many friends who are in the hosp industry, some owners, some staff, as well rellies who are long-time Mickey D employees (story for another time). Me, I’m too clumsy to be a food server — can’t carry one cup of coffee without spilling, let alone two, and forget a whole dinner.

      Reply
  2. Unna

    As per Nietzsche: Great article in the Guardian recently about a new book rehabilitating Nietzsche as a feminist. Great picture in the article of Nietzsche and his Mama. That woman just luuuvs her boy. Very beautiful. Seriously though, lots of interesting facts about his support of women professionally in a very adverse world. When I finish all the stuff I have piling up, maybe I’ll take a look.

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/06/exploding-nietzsche-myths-need-dynamiting

    As to Lambert’s post, We all need to remember women who work in precarious jobs. Low pay, no union. Also in the Guardian today, article criticizing all those upper class “feminists” for what that did to Monica L., with great quote by Hillary describing Bill as “a hard dog to keep on the porch.” Who said Hillary wasn’t a poet?

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/15/hillary-clinton-monica-lewinsky-affair-husband

    Reply
    1. HotFlash

      Still reading the article, but wanted to mention before I have to go out that my first impression of that photo was that Fred luuuuuved his mama. BTW, she’s a widow, the jet beads are a giveaway. Me, I always liked Fred, strong, no-bs,* and fair opinions. No wonder the ‘strong’ part attracted so many, incl many bs’ers who skipped over the ‘fair’ part.

      *Oxford comma for LS.

      Reply
  3. Unna

    Do social origins and experience affect perspective. Of course they do. Both of the 10%er’s and the deplorables. For a deplorable how much of the Ford – K thing feeds off of an impressionistic “take” on who these two people are from the POV of a vector stretched from a deplorable up to them. With an emphasis on “up to.”

    A 10%er sees herself as Ford. Someone else may see Ford’s behavior and choices made at that “party” through a very different lens of cultural expectations, experience, and standards and may not have much “understanding” for Ford at all. But of course, the righteous and moral way to think about it all is formulated by some 10%er at a university.. That may seem harsh but to not understand it is to misunderstand half of America.

    It seems that many 10%er’s expect to be protected throughout their lives. But as Jimmy Dore keeps reminding us, half of America is either in or near poverty. Thus, half of America is not “protected” from much of anything. So the sympathy factor for either Ford or K is low to non existent.

    Thinking about the women who work at McDonald’s; think about the woman in 2016 with three kids working at McDonald’s whose husband works a blue collar job at the local plant. Rumors are that the plant may close and the jobs shipped to Mexico. Now, a disgusting (to her) Trump comes along and says he’s going to stop the off shoring of jobs. While a perfect Hillary Clinton comes along who says she’ll do nothing for you. If your husband loses his job, you lose your house, maybe your marriage after your husband starts drinking, and the kids have no centre to hold them in a world that’s “not all that much into them” as they used to say about Obama. So the McDonald’s mom votes for Trump and now she’s accused by Hillary of voting how her husband told her to, and denounced as a gender traitor in a piece in the NYT. To that McDonald’s mom who is barely holding on, and may also be fending off a grabby boss, the author of that piece comes off as entitled, ignorant, and horrible beyond words. The McDonald’s mom is so angry, she goes out and votes Republican.

    And that’s why, to use a Canadian term, America is sinking into “Two Solitudes” where half the country has no understanding of, or interest in, the other. All this while politicians from both establishment parties exploit this and play their games.

    Thanks most for the very last few paragraphs of this piece.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith

      Thanks for this comment. One of the things that really grated on me was how the Democratic senators went on about how “credible” Ford was, as in a member of their class. What if a townie girl had somehow gotten invited to a party like this and had gotten the same treatment Ford described, and had figured out shortly after the incident who the perps were? Would someone the wrong accent, the wrong clothes, or bad teeth have been taken seriously? We all know the answer.

      Reply
    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > “Two Solitudes” where half the country has no understanding of, or interest in, the other.

      I love the re-application of “Two Solitudes,” but it’s not “half the country.” It’s 10% of the country and 90% of the country.

      Reply
    3. Ignacio

      Your explanation on how “deplorable”, let’s say white, women ended voting Trump instead of Clinton is very pointed. Fear and anger ended fuelling the weirdest of two already bad political options. How rigged is the political system that it cannot produce a decent political option appealing for 90% of the population?

      Anger is not a positive feeling but Clinton and her deplorable speech on deplorables, confusing anger with shame, made the difference against her desire.

      Regarding the divide NC has hosted some posts on how the 10%ers reinforce their lines of politically correct thinking by controlling the media and the academy. One can conclude that to rig (in the sense of fix) the political system a new option appealing to the 90% and able turn the mercenaries of the 10%ers on their side, is badly needed.

      Reply
    4. HotFlash

      Your fourth paragraph exactly describes my mid-50’s sister, except she has 4 kids. BTW, we were raised as 10%ers, but the earth has shifted under our feet in the past few decades. Under yours too, Lambert, unless I miss my guess. So when Bernie was scotched, she went Trump b/c he was the only voice even speaking to what her life was like. So who to vote for? As usual, the question becomes, “Who hasn’t lied to me *most recently*?”

      Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    Since the Kavanaugh hearings were brought up as it put the McDonalds sexual harassment strike in the background, I will point out the obvious. The Kavanagh story was all about the ten per cent as Kavanagh, his accusers and the people holding the hearing were all in that elite group. Of course it was all Kabuki theater as Kavanagh always had the numbers behind him to get him selected.
    The girls and women that work at McDonalds, and even the managers, are all part of the other ninety per cent so as far as the main stream media is concerned, is of small consequence when compared to the shenanigans of the ten percent. If we had a real feminism, they would have lined up along with the women of McDonalds but instead they were to be found berating Senators in elevators and in getting themselves in small groups to be shown on TV.
    If the MSM want stories of sexual misdeeds they need not go looking at thirty-year old stories from dodgy memories but can get plenty of them at places like McDonalds right here and now. And that is what really counts.

    Reply

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