Nearly 52 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, who were demanding higher pay, safe working conditions and the right to a union. “It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages,” he said. Those were Dr. King’s final days, and some of his final words – and they still ring true today.
He knew back then that economic and racial justice were intertwined. He knew that you couldn’t have real equality without addressing the racism and economic inequality that were holding back wages, job opportunities, and wealth creation from black and brown families across the nation.
That’s why if Dr. King was alive, I’m sure he would have marched with McDonald’s workers in the Fight for $15 and a union. He would be standing with us in our call for $15 and union rights from one of the world’s most powerful companies, McDonald’s. He would be raising his voice to demand an end to the economic and racial injustice we bear each and every day.
I have been working at McDonald’s for over five years, paid at just $9 an hour. While the company makes billions of dollars each year, I struggle to survive. Some days, I don’t eat because I can’t afford food. When I pay my rent, my bank account empties out. Now, Missouri passed a law that gets me 45 more cents an hour. But our struggle to survive is day-to-day.
That’s what I’m facing. And I’m far from alone. Across the country, this is what we’re facing.
Earlier this month, two black women filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company, alleging systemic racism at McDonald’s. Their mistreatment ranged from incidents of overt racism – like being called the n-word, being told they were “too angry,” and being passed over for less-qualified white employees – to systemic hiring practices that favored white men, over more experienced people of color. In fact, from 2015 to 2019, the number of black executives at the vice president level or higher fell from 42, to just seven, they allege in their suit.
Meanwhile, the company’s black franchisees are also under fire. One of three Black franchisees has left the company since 2015, the suit alleges, as the disparity between cash flow at their restaurants and those of their white counterparts grows.
When it comes to front-line workers – those of us standing at the cash register or over vats of scalding hot oil, with the golden arches stitched on our uniforms – it’s no better. Like me, many of us are paid so little that we have to rely on public assistance to get by. And when we joined together to call for $15/hour, McDonald’s responded by threatening, intimidating and even firing some of us.
Then, when it got caught, the company colluded with the Trump administration to push through a bargain basement settlement that enabled it to refuse to take responsibility for the way its workers – the overwhelming majority of whom were of color – were treated for the simple act of joining together for a better life.
In the last three years, more than 50 McDonald’s workers have filed sexual harassment charges and suits against the company. The overwhelming majority were filed by workers of color, including horrific allegations of assault, groping and retaliation for speaking out. And despite our repeated attempts to meet with McDonald’s to come up with a solution to the problem, our voices have been ignored, over and over again.
In addition to our harassment complaints falling upon deaf ears, from California to North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and even Brazil, we have stood up to call out racial discrimination on the job. From being subject to demeaning and racist remarks, like being called “ghetto” or “burnt,” to being told that “blacks need not apply” to jobs at the stores, to – in Memphis, no less – having the city’s own police department team with McDonald’s to surveil, intimidate, and harass McDonald’s workers of color coming together to organize for $15 an hour and union rights.
And then, there’s the issue of how McDonald’s exploits prison labor. An investigation by the Marshall Project revealed poor people were being forced to work in places like McDonald’s to try to earn enough to pay off debts and get out of jail.
We can draw a line straight from 1968 in Memphis to today at McDonald’s stores across the country, where black workers are leading the charge to make a uncompromising demand for union rights so we can raise wages and be safe and free from discrimination and harassment at work, and so that all workers have a true seat at the table.
It’s time to lift our voices together again, to carry out the same tradition of organizing for our families and our communities. And it’s time for McDonald’s to listen to us, instead of pretending we are not the company’s responsibility. Until they do, we will keep on marching.
Frances Holmes is a St. Louis-based McDonald's worker and leader in Show Me $15, the movement for a $15 minimum wage.