On May 24, 2017, underpaid workers and their allies joined the March on McDonald's, which took place at McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois on the day of their annual shareholders meeting. The Fight for $15 —the global movement, advocating for $15/hour minimum wage and union rights—organized the demonstration, bringing their cause right to McDonald's doorstep. Hundreds of cooks and cashiers pressed towards a police barricade outside the Oak Brook headquarters, chanting, "We work, we sweat, put $15 in our check!"
"I've been going to every shareholders meeting for the past four years now, to speak on my behalf as well as other workers' behalf," said Darius Cephas, National Organizing Committee Member with the Fight for $15, and a current McDonald's employee. "We're tired of living on poverty wages."
Though the salary for a McDonald's worker can fall anywhere between $7-$12 an hour, the average employee earns $8 an hour, which equals a $16,765 yearly salary for a full time employee. This means, based on the 2017 U.S. poverty guidelines, that it is entirely possible to work a full time job at McDonald's and live below the poverty line. In fact, McDonald's has advised its employees to seek government assistance or secure a second job, in order to make ends meet. Add to that dangerous working conditions and rampant sexual harassment, and a dark workplace picture begins to emerge.
When reached for comment regarding a $15 dollar minimum wage, McDonald's resistance to unionization, and the allegations of sexual harassment, Andrea Abate, a spokesperson for McDonald's, sent the following via email:
"Our commitment to the communities we serve includes providing opportunities for those who work in our restaurants to succeed at McDonald's and beyond. For hundreds of thousands, a job at McDonald's is their very first and our world-class training and education programs begin building the skills first time workers will need to succeed in the workforce. In recent years, we have raised pay and started offering paid time off at our company-owned restaurants. Additionally, eligible employees (at both company-owned and participating franchised restaurants) can take free high school completion classes, get upfront college tuition assistance and learn English as a second language. In just two years, we are proud that over 17,000 employees have participated in this extended learning. Together, these important investments in our people show why we are committed to being America's best first job."
Abate's response failed to answer my initial query regarding unionization, the $15 dollar minimum wage, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but additional requests for comment received no response.
Though McDonald's claims that it possesses "world-class training and education programs," and that it is "committed to being America's best first job," Cephas painted a much different portrait of the company. "There are a lot of struggles we go through just because we're working low-wage jobs." Cephas stated. "We're tired of not being able to pay for our rent, and getting stuck living on government assistance and food stamps. We're tired of having to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. We need to work one job, 40 hours a week and be able to take care of our family, instead of 80 hours a week working two jobs. Eventually, you don't have time for yourself—all you know is work."
The Fight for $15 began in November of 2012, when hundreds of fast food workers in New York City went on strike, demanding a higher minimum wage, the right to form a union, and improved working conditions. Since then, the movement has expanded to over 300 cities worldwide, and grown to advocate for a wide variety of workers including child care providers, home health aides, airport employees, retail workers, convenience store employees and more. Through all their work, McDonald's remains one of the biggest and most important targets of The Fight for $15, because of McDonald's status as one of the world's biggest private employers.
"McDonald's is leading the global race to the bottom," Cephas stated—citing a term used by economists to describe the negative effects of globalization on labor rights. "It's basically modern day slavery if you really think about it." McDonald's sets a competitive business standard that other companies strive to match—even if that means lowering labor standards. Of course, cutting labor costs benefits corporations in a major way, but it is workers who have to pay the price. In some cases, that price can be extreme.
"I was homeless while working at McDonald's," Cephas recounted. "And the fact that I was working full-time, eating McDonald's food every day, working six days a week and I did not have a home—that was ridiculous to me. And there's a lot of people out here struggling, living in shelters, working full time jobs at McDonald's."
Cephas has since found a home, and now lives with his wife and her grandmother in Norwood, Massachusetts, where he also works. But it was his experience struggling to survive on his McDonald's salary, that inspired him to join the Fight for $15. He views the movement as essential to securing economic equality for future generations, and breaking the cycle of worker exploitation.
"The Fight for $15 is breaking the cycle [of poverty]. We're breaking it more as every day goes on. California got 15 dollars an hour, New York got 15 dollars an hour. We're winning in other countries." Cephas stated. "All the money we'll make, is all going back into our communities. So that's a better cycle—the poor become the middle class. The middle class will be able to take care of themselves a lot better. Keeping people in poverty makes no sense to me."
Cephas is hopeful that the March on McDonald's will bring the corporation to the bargaining table, to talk unionization and raising wages. But regardless of the results of the March, Cephas is confident of the continued success of the Fight for $15, and its ability to unite workers across the globe. "No longer are we suffering in silence," he said. "We are actually coming together as one voice, and letting our voices be heard."