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McDonald’s Secretive Intel Team Spies on ‘Fight for $15’ Workers, Internal Documents Show

McDonald’s collects ‘strategic intelligence’ on workers advocating for a $15 minimum wage, including ‘how and where will FF$15 attack the brand.’
February 24, 2021, 3:59pm
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Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

For years, McDonald's has internally labeled activists and employees working with the Fight for $15 campaign a security threat and has spied on them, Motherboard has learned. McDonald's says that this work is designed to identify protests that "could put crew and customer safety at risk."

The fast food giant's secretive intelligence unit has monitored its own workers’ activities with the movement, which seeks to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, including by using social media monitoring tools, according to two sources who worked at McDonald's who had direct knowledge of the surveillance and leaked documents that explain the surveillance strategy and tactics. A team of intelligence analysts in the Chicago and London offices keep an eye on the activities of Fight for $15 labor organizers across the world, figure out which McDonald's workers are active in the movement, and who they are working with to organize strikes, protests, or attempt to form unions. 

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No McDonald's workers are currently unionized, but many of them are politically involved with Fight for $15, which has organized fast food worker strikes and protests since 2012 and is affiliated with one of the country's largest unions. To date, McDonald's has refused to bargain with workers who the company says aren't its employees because they work for franchises. 

The surveillance is particularly notable given the current political battle being fought over a $15 minimum wage, which has been proposed in Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. An increase in the minimum wage is broadly popular nationally with both Republican and Democratic voters (and two-thirds of Americans support raising it to $15), but the proposal has become a sticking point in the stimulus legislation: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—a critical vote in the Senate—has said he does not favor a $15 minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than 10 years.

Specifically, McDonald's was worried about tracking workers who may be involved in activist groups advocating for higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to join unions, such as Fight for $15 campaign and its financer the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the second largest labor union in the United States.

"The idea was to figure out their strategy, counter it, and find out where the key players are, and who they know"

According to documents obtained by Motherboard, McDonald’s has a goal of collecting "strategic intelligence" on "counter-parties" as well as "political intelligence on difficult political landscapes in complex markets that could cause significant business disruption and impact returns on investment." 

One of the stated goals of the intelligence team is to figure out "how and where will FF$15 attack the brand," according to an internal McDonald's document obtained by Motherboard. Other questions the team was investigating include: "What risk scenarios will manifest in 2021 and put pain on McDonald’s?" and "How is the FF$15 executing its 2020 objectives? … what new tactics and strategies are not part of the FF$15’s 2020 objectives?"

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One of the documents seen by Motherboard, a report on "Ongoing FF$15 Activity Against McDonald's During the COVID-19 Crisis" contains a series of bullet points where the company's intelligence analyst recap labor activists' activities, down to the number of in-person and "virtual" protests.

"Protesters have gathered in parking lots, placed signs on their cars while passing through parking lots and drive-thrus, blocked traffic, and parked billboard trucks with FF$15 messaging outside [McDonald's HQ] and restaurant locations," the document reads.  

"There has been little to no notice ahead of protest events, with strike letters often being sent on the day of the event or even while the event is taking place," the report concludes. It also notes in its list of activity "against McDonald's" that the "ACLU launched an advocacy campaign pressuring McDonald's to provide paid sick leave for all of its employees."

Fight for $15 has successfully lobbied for $15 minimum wage laws in several states, including in Florida in November's election, where it passed with more than 60 percent support from voters. Cofounded by and largely made up of McDonald's workers, the campaign has become one of the most recognizable among labor organizing groups in the world. Its activism has helped lead directly to today, where there is a very real chance that Congress passes a $15 federal minimum wage. 

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Two former McDonald's corporate employees, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from the company, described details of the intelligence program against labor organizers.

"The entire thing was messed up," one of the former employees said. "A company should be working with employees and the people that drive the business, not building an intelligence program directed at reporting on those same people."

As part of this program, since at least last year, McDonald's has used its internal analysts and two different pieces of data collection software, according to internal strategy documents obtained by Motherboard. McDonald's intelligence analysts have used a social media monitoring tool to collect and scrape data openly available online and to help it monitor social media accounts. The sources told Motherboard that the company's intelligence analysts have attempted to use the tool to reconstruct the friends lists and networks of workers involved in the labor movement using fake Facebook personas, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the efforts.

"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. 

McDonald's denies this specific aspect of the program. McDonald's "has never used fake social media accounts to actively gather information, including labor activity," McDonald's spokesperson Jesse Lewin said.

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"This story is laden with false information, pulling together disparate pieces of information to build a sensationalist narrative that is inaccurate and misleading," Lewin said. "Moreover, McDonald’s does not tolerate retaliation of any kind. To be clear, none of the business intelligence work is related to labor relations. To suggest otherwise is entirely false."

However, Lewin said that McDonald's does have a team "focused on identifying any potential safety threats that could pose harm to our crew, franchisees, and customers in the nearly 40,000 communities globally in which we operate."

"For example, we have a responsibility to monitor for labor protest activity that may have the intended purpose to disrupt restaurant operations that could put crew and customer safety at risk," Lewin said. "This is not unusual for a large multinational corporation like ours."

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, on Wickr at lorenzofb, OTR chat at lorenzofb@jabber.ccc.de, or email lorenzofb@vice.com. You can contact Lauren Kaori Gurley by email lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.

Surveillance of labor movements and organizing is often couched in the language of "safety." Last year, secret internal documents from Amazon obtained by Motherboard showed that it was surveilling labor movements and environmental groups "to help keep our employees, buildings, and inventory safe."

The intelligence team's surveillance efforts also included keeping an eye on the public social media accounts—including using Google Alerts—of prominent labor movement leaders such as David Rolf, a long-time labor movement activist, Mary Kay Henry, the president of the SEIU, and Rev. William Barber II, the founder of Moral Mondays and the Poor People's Campaign, grass-roots movements for racial and economic justice, and a pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The alerts also included keywords such as "wage theft," "low pay is not ok," and "fissured workplace," according to a document seen by Motherboard.   

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Lewin, the McDonald's spokesperson, said that "it’s hardly notable that McDonald’s reads publicly available news and information relevant to our industry and business."

The workers who have been protesting were surprised to find out how the company has been tracking Fight for $15.  

"It's a shame that instead of listening to workers' demands about what we need to stay safe on the job and support our families, McDonald's is spending its time and resources trying to undermine our voices," Gloria Muchaca, a McDonald's worker and a leader of the Fight for $15 movement in Houston, Texas, told Motherboard. "We're not afraid and this won't stop us. These desperate efforts by McDonald's only show the power of the movement that we've built over the past eight years."

Matthew Finkin, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and a longtime labor law expert, said in an interview that surveilling workers is a tradition in the United States that goes back to the early 20th century with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Still, he said, spying on workers with the purpose of learning about their labor organizing, and even just creating the impression that there may be surveillance, is illegal and a violation of federal labor law, regardless of the result—retaliation or punishment, for example—of that surveillance. 

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"Surveillance for the purpose of determining union activity is a violation of federal labor law," Finkin said. 

"It’s as outrageous now as it was a hundred years ago," Finkin added, referring to congressional investigations in the previous century and a long history of surveillance against labor organizers. "What’s new here is the deployment of technology."

Currently, no McDonald's employees are unionized, and McDonald's said that "All these teams use publicly available information, in full compliance with the law and with our own ethical standards."

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Fight for $15 protesters clash with the police in Kansas City in 2016. (Image: Chase CastorVICE)

The Fight for $15 campaign was born in 2012, when McDonald's workers in New York City walked off the job demanding a $15 hourly wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. The movement quickly spread across the United States, galvanizing thousands of fast food workers in more than 150 American cities to protest and strike. In 2014, thousands of protestors partially shut down McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, the largest protest against McDonald's in the company's history, and more than 100 people were arrested. 

By many measures, the Fight for $15 has become the most successful labor movement in decades, getting higher minimum wage legislation passed in California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, and most recently in the 2020 general election, in Florida. Last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, McDonald's workers from Chicago to Los Angeles to St. Louis went on strike, demanding protective gear and hazard pay. This year, the Biden administration is pushing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 as part of its COVID-19 stimulus package, and thousands of McDonald's workers in dozens of U.S. cities have already gone on strike to pressure the new administration.

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Since its inception, McDonald's has publicly opposed the campaign's attempts to unionize workers and pay a $15 minimum wage. McDonalds has dedicated vast resources to paying lobbyists, top union avoidance lawyers, and its own staff to fight minimum wage increases proposed by the campaign. 

The company has also not responded to requests that it sit down at the bargaining table with union organizers and workers. For years, one of the country's top anti-union law firms, Littler Mendelson, had a legal hotline that McDonald's franchise restaurant owners could call for advice on how to respond to protest actions at their stores. In 2014, according to a lawsuit, the Memphis police department said they received "authorization from the president of McDonald's" to arrest protesting McDonald's workers affiliated with Fight for $15. Fight For $15 and the city of Memphis settled the lawsuit a few months after it was filed in 2017. The Memphis Police Department denied any wrongdoing in 2014, but at the same time promised in the settlement to not spy on Fight for $15 activists without probable cause.

"A company should be working with employees and the people that drive the business, not building an intelligence program directed at reporting on those same people."

In 2016, a former McDonald's CEO blamed the Fight for $15 campaign for the implementation of automated pay kiosks at restaurants.

"When the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage," then-CEO Ed Rensi wrote, "I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives."

McDonald's franchise model has made it uniquely difficult for its fast food workers to unionize because workers are forced to contend with both the owner of their specific restaurant, and McDonald's. 

Several people within the intelligence team did not think that monitoring the labor movement was ethical, and some even doubted whether it was legal, according to the former employees. 

"Times are changing," one of the former McDonald's corporate employees told Motherboard. "So why is a company like McDonald's not facing the reality of what the changing workforce is like, and how labor is not an outdated discussion and something that it shouldn't actively oppose?" 

"I think what's frustrating is that McDonald’s—to put it very simply—is not putting their money where their mouth is," the former employee added. "They might say 'we support Black lives' or change a logo. But what is it doing structurally to help Black lives, and to show that they matter, not through PR, but through supporting workers?"