McDonald's workers carry a banner and march towards a McDonald's in south Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. McDonald’s workers staged protests in several cities Tuesday as part of what organizer
( AP Photo/Richard Vogel
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, we heard the chants of hundreds of women from 10 different cities from Chicago to Miami protesting working conditions at McDonald's.
[SOUND OF WORKERS CHANTING]
The workers say they had faced groping, lewd comments and inappropriate behavior.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They say the company isn't doing enough to prevent harassment at local restaurants.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: According to Forbes, nine employees filed charges against McDonald’s in May alone.
BOB GARFIELD: The company has sent mixed messages. For advice on sexual harassment policy, McDonald's partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. The company also sought legal counsel from the same firm representing the Weinstein Company, as in Harvey Weinstein. On Tuesday, workers walked out at lunch and used the day to demand that the company enforce its zero-tolerance policy.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: They want improvements in the company's sexual-harassment procedures. They also want better training for managers and employees.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the first multistate strike to protest sexual harassment in the workplace in US history and a notable alliance of the #MeToo group called the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and the labor initiative Fight for $15, focused on worker dignity and a $15-an-hour wage.
Annelise Orleck is a professor of history at Dartmouth College who has surveyed movements to empower the powerless worldwide and is author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now.
ANNELISE ORLECK: Thank you for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: You had some role in this week's strike. What was that?
ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, I didn't really have a role in the week’s strike except that Fight for $15 contacted me just before the strike and said, would you be willing to set it in historical and global context? And so, that’s what I’ve tried to do.
BOB GARFIELD: Good, let’s do that right now.
ANNELISE ORLECK: Okay. The earliest strike that I found, which was a 1912 corset makers’ strike in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the young women said, we know you're uncomfortable with this International Ladies Garment Workers Union but we want to foreground it. There is a foreman who is putting his hands on the girls, he’s asking for quid pro quo sex, if you want to keep your job, and we've had it. And so, they walked out. So they were really the first to make sexual harassment on the job a labor issue.
The movement against gender-based violence in the workplace really started in 2011, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a really innovative labor organization of mostly Central American migrants in Florida who were tomato pickers, began what they called the Fair Food Campaign. It was a campaign for worker-led safety inspections, it was a campaign for the right to unionize but it was perhaps, first and foremost, a campaign against what they called “rape in the fields.” As recently as this past March, there were women field workers holding a five- day hunger strike in the middle of Manhattan in front of the home of one of Wendy's executives in Wendy's corporate headquarters to protest that.
And then the global piece that I think is really important is the International Trade Union Federation, which is the biggest union consortium in the world that’s got members in 112 countries, what they’re trying to get is the International Labor Organization to pass a new convention mandating zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. And national governments ratify those conventions. When that happens, it becomes the law of the land in that country.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to play you a piece of tape from the journalist and author Lin Farley who spoke to us almost a year ago.
LIN FARLEY: Nobody pays any attention to the kids at the fast food places all across the country. How does Angelina Jolie being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein or Gretchen Carlson at Fox, how do they help these kids at McDonald's? How does that help them? Nobody cares about them.
ANNELISE ORLECK: Without question, the activism of famous and wealthy women in Hollywood and in television media has made the country and the world pay attention. I think that it makes people realize how omnipresent this is. But there's a real anti-poor bias in the popular culture of this country, and we tend to blame the poor, particularly poor women of color, for everything that happens to them. So that's one thing that I think has changed the climate for these low-wage women workers. But they, themselves, have insisted on changing that climate.
The tomato pickers from Immokalee toured the country for 12 years talking about what was happening and the McDonald's workers are now doing the same. And I think those consumers who saw women in the streets of 10 of our largest cities with signs that said, you know, McDonald's, keep your burgers, keep your fries, we’re tired of your sexist lies, they met with a lot of sympathy, I’m going to guess because so many women have experienced this.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the labor movement over the course of a century managed to confront raw economic power and create a huge body of labor law to protect workers, a lot of which has been dismantled. So there seem to be two forces in play here, one, the systematic dismantling of labor protections versus this burgeoning #MeToo movement. So who’s going to prevail?
ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, low-wage workers have realized that despite all the ways in which labor has lost power in the last 30, 40 years, there are advantages to the social media era. When they conduct their actions, they want professional media to cover them but they don't wait for that. They are, to some extent, creating their own record, right, and they are being their own media. And, as a result of that, there's a certain vulnerability, even to these unbelievably powerful corporations like Walmart and McDonald's. They have been forced to budge a little bit.
[I'M LOVIN' IT BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE/MCDONALDS VERSION]
McDonald's paid Justin Timberlake $6 million to sing “I’m Lovin’ It” and, you know, they’ve been subverting that with a not lovin’ it campaign.
They’ve had the McDonald’s, you know, McMenu of Shame. So I think that in all of these ways this movement is very alive, it's very powerful and it feels good, right? Women who been sexually harassed and sexually abused on the job feel shame, a sense of despair and then when you come together protesting on the street and feeling that collective power, that gives them strength. Is it an uphill battle, a bunch of less-than-minimum- wage workers going against the number one and two employers in the world, of course it is. But I'm pretty impressed by some of the gains that they have made since 2011-12 when this movement started.
BOB GARFIELD: A major element of the #MeToo movement has been the power of public shaming. Now, I daresay that some anonymous $40,000-a-year McDonald's assistant manager getting fired for groping an employee is -- it's just not going to show up in a Ronan Farrow blockbuster in The New Yorker. And a 10-city strike, while unprecedented, is also fairly small scale and ephemeral. What else has to happen before this really gets traction as a movement, really captures the imagination of the workers and finally lands on the public's radar to stir the righteous indignation?
ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, I mean, this is a moment when progressives are, are in fairly deep despair about the state of our federal government but on a local level they’ve had a lot of success in terms of city governments, city councils, city ordinances. Hundreds of living wage laws have been passed. You know, they’ve been able to get statewide laws in the two biggest labor markets in the United States, California and New York State, you know, and they may very well be able to do the same in places like Illinois and Massachusetts.
We’re back 100 years ago, Bob, in terms of labor law. The Trump White House urged the National Labor Relations Board to start charging unions for not moving quickly enough on their workers’ complaints, literally not financially charging them but bringing them up on some kinds of charges. So there’s an attempt to weaponize some of those Roosevelt-era laws to, to hurt unions further. But I think on the ground, those workers are excited. They’ve been able to win some local laws allowing them days off to recover from domestic violence and sexual assault and if they have to go into shelters and go underground not to lose their job. So, you know, I just have to hope that the media will keep on paying attention ‘cause this movement isn't going anywhere.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, when I was a young man I witnessed something in a bar that was just -- intensely disturbing, which led me many, many years later to tell my daughters, when they went into the workforce as students, please, don't take a restaurant job. Can you envision a day in my lifetime where that advice is just no longer necessary?
ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, I think Las Vegas is a great example because it's the most unionized city in the country, and so this under-the-radar sale of sex, right, that's, that's implicit in the looks and the uniforms that so many restaurants make their servers wear, in Las Vegas, right, it's the home of the 65-year-old cocktail waitress, right? It’s a union job. And they had a great deal of success in fighting abuse of waitresses, servers and bartenders. If it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere. And so, that's why these McDonald's workers are also talking about a union. That's when you see a difference because then workers have real bargaining power and they have legal contracts guaranteeing their conditions. And we did see that in 2016 and 2017. The women beer promoters in Cambodia waged a year-long union campaign because they were being groped as just, you know, part of their job when they were out there pouring beer for Carlsberg Brewery in all these Cambodian restaurants and bars. They won the right to be free of that, to get off work earlier and to be driven home safely so that they couldn't have customers follow them.
You know, only a few years ago the very word “strike” was something that even unions didn't like to utter. That's changing. As the Legal Defense Fund is called, you know, TIME’S UP on this system, I think, is what workers are saying.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Annelise, many thanks.
ANNELISE ORLECK: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now.
That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Asthaa Chaturvedi and Samantha Maldonado, and our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.