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McDonald’s workers speak out against sexual harassment and low pay

IMAGINE getting groped and fondled on the job, twice in one month, by two different male coworkers — and your supervisors turn a deaf ear. So much so that you’re forced to take three weeks off work without pay to try to recover.

That’s what happened last year to Tanya Harrel, an African-American McDonald’s worker in New Orleans and one of 10 women of colour forced to file federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the fast-food giant in late May.

And two days later, McDonald’s workers took their cases — against sexual harassment, against low pay and against company labour law-breaking — to McDonald’s shareholders too.

That’s when hundreds of McDonald’s workers, marshalled by Fight for $15 and a Union, gathered at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, to let the world know of the problems at the hamburger king.

According to Harrel’s complaint, filed by one of two pro-worker law firms engaged by Time’s Up, a project of the National Women’s Law Centre, a male co-worker “with whom she [Harrel] had thought she had a platonic friendship … started groping her against her will, often when she was washing dishes and there were no cameras keeping watch.”

“He actually came onto me very aggressively,” Harrel told her lawyer from San Francisco-based Outten and Burden. “He would grab my breasts and other private parts.” She tried to escape the problem by avoiding him, but he kept repeating the behaviour.

Two supervisors, one of each sex, ignored Harrel, leaving her “unprotected and unsafe.” She took a few days off work without pay to recover. By the time she returned, the harasser had quit. But the harassment didn’t.

Just days later, another male coworker pulled Harrel into a bathroom, pinned her to the wall, exposed his genitals and tried to force her into sex. She didn’t report it, given her supervisors’ prior reaction. But this time Harrel had to take a few weeks off to recover. 

“I couldn’t deal with it physically, just going into the workplace,” she told the lawyers, but she couldn’t pay her bills.

“I had to really ask people for money because I was so scared to go back to work,” she said. The federal agency was her next stop, with the lawyers’ help.

All that culminated in the Oak Brook protest on May 21, covering harassment, low pay and McDonald’s labour law-breaking. It was the latest in a series of Fight for $15 and a Union demonstrations at the corporate sanctum during the McDonald’s shareholders meeting.

“We are cooks and cashiers who work behind the company’s counters, grills and fryers across the country,” Fight for $15 said. 

“And we are calling on McDonald’s — the world’s second-biggest private employer — to use its massive power and wealth to lift up people of colour and our communities rather than keep us locked in poverty.

“McDonald’s is a $129 billion corporation, but instead of putting some of its money into the pockets of front-line workers, the company fought tooth and nail to block us from getting higher wages, disproportionately hurting workers of colour. 

“McDonald’s even backtracked on a promised wage increase for workers in corporate stores, which, in any event, would have been far too little for far too few of us.

“McDonald’s workers of all colours and creeds are united to build a better future for our children, and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal,” they vowed.

That includes filing the sexual harassment complaints with the federal agency in Washington DC, from workers in New Orleans, Chicago, St Louis and elsewhere, and taking their complaints right to the company’s corporate doorstep.

“Many workers in McDonald’s stores allege rampant sexual harassment — and we’ve waited far too long for McDonald’s to speak up and do something about it,” Fight for $15 added.

“That’s why we’re marching outside McDonald’s HQ.”

The marchers pledged to “stand with those suing McDonald’s for shirking responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment in its stores — including those filing suit.”

And to make sure other fast-food workers have a place to turn when they’re harassed on the job — statistics show sexual harassment is more frequent in fast food than in any other industry — the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund launched a hotline for them to seek legal help.

The May 21 protest covered a third issue: McDonalds’s scheme with the Trump administration to evade responsibility for its labour law-breaking in every field from workers’ rights to health and safety to sexual harassment.

McDonald’s and the new Trump National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) agreed to settle an NLRB case with money for workers hurt by the firm’s labour law-breaking during a prior Fight for $15 campaign. 

In that case, McDonald’s argued its corporate headquarters could not be jointly responsible with local franchises for labour law-breaking. 

Trump’s NLRB said yes to the money settlement of that case, in Philadelphia. But the workers’ lawyer had to agree too. He said no. Both McDonald’s and its franchises are responsible for law-breaking, he stated.

“McDonald’s has a choice: Be a trailblazer for safe, dignified and fair workplaces for all Americans — or face the consequences of shirking their responsibility to their workers,” the workers in Oak Brook said. “The future we’re fighting for depends on it.”

McDonald’s issued a routine corporate statement saying that it takes sexual harassment allegations seriously.

This article appeared at peoplesworld.org.

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