McDonald’s weathers a week of nonstop union pressure

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“McDonald’s finds itself in a S**TSTORM,” boasted an email from one of the media contacts representing Fight for $15, the union-related group that mounted an unrelenting attempt last week to sour public opinion of the quick-service giant.  

The advocate for unionizing quick-service employees felt entitled to some trash talk after the hellish time it’d dealt the chain. Day after day, the brand was portrayed as a public menace that doesn’t care if sexual harassment is rampant beneath the Golden Arches, or if employees are routinely exposed to guns and violence on the job. Protection costs money, and McDonald’s can’t see wasting it on staff safety, the outpouring of publicity tartly suggested.  

The iconic brand has drawn sniper fire for years from Fight for $15, a front for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the group that dreams of unionizing the restaurant business by making McDonald’s the first domino to fall. Humbling an employer of that scale could hearten employees at smaller operations to take their shot at empowerment. 

But the efforts of last week were unprecedented, in part because the pummeling was nonstop. Each smack also carried the force of what Fight for $15 presented as irrefutable fact: 25 newly filed complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of alleged sexual attacks inside McDonald’s restaurants, and a report from a third party on the physical dangers crew members routinely face from armed robbers and unruly customers. 

Fight for $15 and the SEIU certainly seemed to smell blood. To ensure their message wasn’t drowned out by the cheering at McDonald’s shareholder meeting on Thursday, where investors learned they’d receive a big dividend, the labor advocates banged the war drums even harder. They announced the launch of a new campaign called Fight for $15 2020, an initiative intended to make unionization of quick-service restaurants a cause of the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential election. 

The groups may have already succeeded in that quest. Support for Fight for $15’s efforts was pledged by 16 of the 24 Democrats who are seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Five of them—Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio—joined with groups of McDonald’s employees to participate in the announcement and call for unionization of restaurants. 

The New York Times reported that Sanders had made the extraordinary move of lending his email database to the advocacy group so it could solicit support from rank-and-file Democrats for unionization and a strike against McDonald’s. 

The other professed sympathizers include Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Eric Swalwell and Tulsi Gabbard. 

The other eight declared candidates did not profess support, but did not assert any opposition, either. 

That pressure for unionization was at least overt. Only a franchising geek may have noticed the subtler move by Fight for $15 of treating McDonald’s and its franchisees as joint employers of the chain’s workforce. If that designation should stick, McDonald’s could be held liable for franchisees’ labor lapses, opening the deeper-pocketed franchisee to far more lawsuits and fines, but also easing the chain’s unionization. Instead of having to organize unit by unit or franchisee by franchisee, labor could aim to unionize the whole system. It’s also easier to muster employee opposition to a big multinational corporation than it is to enlist resistance to a mom-and-pop operator of two units.

McDonald’s was quiet during and after the blitz, though the slew of media reports noted the brand has already halted any active resistance to a $15 minimum wage, the stated objective of its main labor adversary. It declined to provide comment or other input for this post.

Clearly it’s betting that it can ride out the storm as if this was just another squall.


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