Government Sues Former McDonald’s Employees to Comply With Subpoenas About Surveilling Workers

Former members of McDonald's "Global Intelligence Team" must testify about “social media, security, intelligence-gathering, and/or other modalities to surveil employees who have been engaged in the Fight For $15 Campaign.”
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Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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The U.S. government agency responsible for enforcing labor laws sued two former McDonald’s employees in an effort to compel them to respond to a subpoena related to a case of alleged surveillance against the company’s workers involved with the labor activist campaign Fight for $15. 

On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed an application to compel two McDonald’s employees who used to work on the company’s team responsible for security and intelligence gathering to provide evidence to the agency. This team was known as Global Intelligence Team. The two ex-employees received subpoenas in March of this year requesting that they testify in an investigation into whether McDonald’s had used “social media, security, intelligence-gathering, and/or other modalities to surveil employees who have been engaged in the Fight For $15 Campaign,” a court document read. 

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The lawsuit and the NLRB investigation stems from a Motherboard investigation published in February of 2021. The investigation, based on leaked internal documents and sources with knowledge of the surveillance operation, revealed that McDonald’s had for years labeled Fight for $15 activists a security threat, and spied on them to figure out which workers were involved in the movement, and who they were working with to organize protests, strikes, and attempt to form unions. 

"The idea was to figure out their strategy, counter it, and find out where the key players are, and who they know," a former McDonald's corporate employee told Motherboard last year. 

The two former employees sued are Carsten Frank and Kristen Stewart-Gibbs, who both used to be part of McDonald’s Global Intelligence Team. Frank’s subpoena was issued March 24, while Stewart-Gibbs’s subpoena was issued on March 10, 2022. Neither of them appeared in front of the NLRB’s regional department in Chicago, and their “failure and refusal to cooperate with the subpoena issued to her by providing sworn testimony has impeded and continues to impede the Region in its investigation of the matters before it, and has prevented the Region from carrying out its duties and functions,” according to the court document.

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Frank and Stewart-Gibbs did not respond to a request for comment sent via LinkedIn.  

Do you, or did you used to, work at McDonald's? Do you know about the company's surveillance of workers? Or do you know anything else about companies spying on their workers? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, Wickr/Telegram/Wire @lorenzofb, or email lorenzofb@vice.com

On Monday, McDonald’s filed a motion asking two members of the NLRB to recuse themselves from the investigation, arguing that they were previously affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Fast Food Workers Union (“NFFWU”). 

In the motion, the company argues that the “NFFWU erroneously alleges that the McDonald’s Entities engaged in unlawful surveillance of the activities of the ‘Service Employees International Union, [the] National Fast Food Workers Union, [the] Fight for 15, [and] affiliate organization[s] of the foregoing organizations.’”

The company also criticized the unfair labor practice charge filed against McDonald’s following Motherboard’s investigation. 

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“The charge was based in its entirety on an unsubstantiated, anonymously sourced vice.com article and erroneously alleged that McDonald’s Corp.’s Global Intelligence Department engaged in unlawful surveillance of workers and union organizers participating in the Fight for $15 campaign, using tactics including extensive monitoring of social media activity,” the motion read. “The Global Intelligence Department’s activities consist solely of the lawful monitoring of publicly available, open source information.”

The company’s motion reveals that the NLRB has requested McDonald’s to release information related to the case, and filed a subpoena. 

McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment. 

In an emailed statement, Otha Smith, a Milwaukee McDonald’s worker and leader in the Fight for $15 movement said: “What is McDonald’s trying to hide? Instead of heeding our demand for $15/hr and a voice on the job, first McDonald’s apparently launched an operation to spy on us and now they’re fighting in court to keep it secret. While McDonald’s spends millions on corporate lawyers, we’ll be in the streets demanding a living wage of at least $15/hr and fighting to fix the broken labor laws that have allowed the company to surveil us for nearly a decade without facing consequences.”

A spokesperson for the NLRB declined to comment.  

The NLRB requested the court to issue an order to Frank and Stewart-Gibbs to appear by Zoom within 14 days. 

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