Workers accuse McDonald’s of “intimidation tactics straight out of the Jim Crow Era”

Fast-food workers across the country are protesting low pay, and McDonald’s is at the center of the controversy.
Fast-food workers across the country are protesting low pay, and McDonald’s is at the center of the controversy.
Image: Reuters/Kyle Grillot
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Fast-food workers in the US say they’re being starved of livable wages— and they’re fighting back. Today (May 21) over 100 McDonald’s workers from around the country stormed company headquarters in Chicago, delivering a scathing letter about their extreme displeasure to executives at the home of the Happy Meal.

The letter, from “cooks and cashiers who work behind McDonald’s counters, grills and fryers across the country,” argues that the company has “fought tooth and nail” to keep worker wages low, leaving employees “locked in poverty.” They called on the company to pay all workers at least $15 an hour, rather than fighting wage hikes in the 21 states that adhere to the federal minimum wage standard of $7.25 an hour.

Protestors argue that the $129 billion corporation, which is the world’s second-largest private employer, spends tens of millions of dollars annually to influence elected officials to fight wage increases. This is  ”disproportionately hurting workers of color,” their letter contends.

They accuse McDonald’s of backtracking on promised raises and worse. The corporation engages in “intimidation tactics straight out of the Jim Crow Era,” says the statement, providing these examples:

In Memphis, McDonald’s coordinated with the city’s police department in a widespread and illegal campaign of surveillance and intimidation in an attempt to stifle workers of color fighting for $15 an hour and union rights. Beginning in September 2014, police officers repeatedly threatened McDonald’s workers with arrest during strikes, at one point telling workers they had “authorization from the president of McDonald’s to make arrests.” In another instance, a McDonald’s franchise manager in Memphis joined a group of police officers tailing workers after a protest.

Protestors argue that these actions “are intended to keep workers in predominantly Black cities like Memphis from challenging McDonald’s low wages.”

Quartz asked McDonald’s to comment on the claims. Corporate spokesperson Terri Hickey replied in an e-mail that the company is “committed to the communities it serves” and is making efforts to put workers on an upwardly mobile trajectory, stating, “Recently we announced we are tripling tuition assistance for restaurant employees by allocating $150 million over five years to our Archways to Opportunity education program […] We also lowered eligibility requirements, making the program more accessible.”

The workers argue that a $15/hour minimum wage ”would help to close the pay and wealth gaps for people of color and women, and could significantly help future generations.” They cite statistics from the National Employment Law Project, which indicate that people of color would benefit most from minimum wage increases, “as 54 percent of Black workers and 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour today, compared to 36 percent of white workers.”

The protest today was organized by Fight For 15, a non-profit organization that began in New York in 2012 to lead a global nonviolent movement for workers’ right. In the US, Fight For 15 is aligned with the Poor People’s Campaign, a coalition of 100 groups fighting racism, anti-immigration sentiment, poverty, ecological destruction, “the war economy” and “the nation’s distorted morality.” They demand higher wages and the right to unionize for the 64 million US workers who earn less than $15 an hour. On May 13, Mother’s Day, they launched 40 days of “nonviolent direct action” to ensure their “call for moral revival” is heard.