Over the last two years, the world has heard much about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Dozens of actresses came forward to accuse movie producer Harvey Weinstein and a string of other influential men of sexual misconduct. The revelations about powerful men preying on subordinates and job-seekers then spread through other high-profile industries as well, including politics, tech and publishing.
But there was barely a peep about what low-wage workers were being forced to endure, even though working-class women (and sometimes men) experience sexual harassment at least as often and typically have fewer resources at hand to fight back.
We feared that public interest in rooting out sexual harassment and sexual assault would wane before the spotlight moved from the glitterati to ordinary working stiffs. This week, however, there came a hopeful sign to the contrary, in the form of 25 federal complaints and lawsuits filed on behalf of McDonald’s restaurant workers. As the #MeToo movement nears its two-year anniversary, it now seems that it may not only continue to move forward, but may also expand to address the concerns of women and men in low-wage jobs, starting with fast-food workers.
Public attention and public shaming about these issues, which have been so successfully kept in the shadows for years, can lead to change.
Great — because the evidence indicates they really need some help. Factory workers, hotel workers, waitresses, home care workers — especially those who are women of color or women who lack documentation — are at particular risk of sexual assault and harassment. They face greater power imbalances at work, weaker job security and more significant challenges in reporting mistreatment, and they more often lack the wherewithal (financial and otherwise) to fight back. Over the last decade, women in the food service and hospitality industries have reported more sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than those in any other industry.
That’s why it was heartening on Tuesday, when McDonald’s — an employer with a history of being sued by the EEOC — got its #MeToo call-out. Two dozen current or former employees from outlets in 20 cities, including Los Angeles and Monterey Park, filed complaints about on-the-job sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation. The coordinated action, which included protests around the country, was a joint effort by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and Fight for $15, a union-backed group seeking to raise the minimum wage.
Allegations by McDonald’s employees that they have regularly had to endure propositions, lewd comments and even sexual assault — followed, in many cases, by retaliation if they complained — have been surfacing for years. But the individual cases hadn’t gotten much traction, and certainly hadn’t forced the international burger empire to make significant changes to try to stop the abuse. At least not until Fight for $15 reached out to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for help. Formed and funded by 300 leading women in the entertainment business early last year, the fund’s mission is to give ordinary working women access to the same kind of broad publicity as movie stars and models.
Because public attention and public shaming about these issues, which have been so successfully kept in the shadows for years, can lead to change. Shortly before the announcement about the federal complaints was made, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) saying that the company was planning to roll out sexual harassment training and set up a hotline to report incidents — two of the remedies that this week’s coordinated campaign is seeking. Coincidence? Probably not, though it will take more attention to ensure McDonald’s does right by its employees.