McDonald’s workers’ demand for union rights took center stage in South Carolina Saturday as Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke stood with workers on strike for the right to a union.
It was the latest display in a rising chorus in support of union rights at McDonald’s among leading 2020 hopefuls, just weeks after a slew of Presidential candidates stood shoulder-to-shoulder with McDonald’s workers on strike around the country as the burger giant held its annual shareholder meeting.
In Charleston, McDonald’s workers went on strike Saturday to demand the right to a union as the best way to raise pay, curb workplace violence and end sexual harassment. On the strike line, workers argued that union rights would be the best way to lift up Black workers, especially in the South.
South Carolina ranks lowest for union membership in the country. Black union workers are paid nearly 17% more in wages than their non-union peers and are more than 15% more likely to have health insurance and a retirement plan than Black non-union workers.
“McDonald’s is making billions of dollars every year, but I only get paid $8.75. I ask for a raise and every time they say ‘we’ll talk about it’—but that conversation never happens,” said Taiwanna Milligan, a McDonald’s worker in Charleston who spoke at the strike. “I used to let McDonald’s push me around. But now I speak up for myself. I want other workers to know that things can get better. A lot of workers don’t know their own power, but when we come together, we have a voice. That’s part of why I’m part of this movement, and we’re going to keep on speaking up and keep on striking until we win our right to a union.”
Candidates in Charleston were in town to tape a presidential forum hosted by the Black Economic Alliance Saturday afternoon. Bright and early, O’Rourke brought coffee to striking workers and offered words of encouragement before they began their march to McDonald’s. Donning a red Fight for 15 t-shirt over his white dress shirt, Beto followed workers in chants of “Union! Union! Fifteen and a Union!”
“We need to make sure that in every single community, in every single state, every single person has the right to organize,” said O’Rourke. “It’s the only way we’re going to get to $15 an hour for every person as a floor from which they can rise to greater wages to make sure that we have the benefits and a safe workplace for every single person: safe from discrimination, safe from harassment, safe so that you can be able to advance and fulfill your full potential.”
The group of workers and community members then marched to a Charleston McDonalds waving red Fight for $15 flags and hoisting giant signs spelling UNION. Upon arriving at the McDonald’s, workers were greeted by Booker, who rallied workers and supporters.
“Democracy is being assaulted by oligarchs and concentrated corporate power. It is driving down wages. It is undermining free markets and the ability of labor to organize,” said Booker. “And to that we say, ‘no more!’ We will match their power to try to divide us by uniting and organizing. We will match their power to try to make us weak with our strength through coming together and organizing. And we will say that it’s time in America that we no longer allow people to pay poverty wages.”
In the early afternoon, Buttigieg joined workers in a march through downtown Charleston, ending outside of the Charleston Music Hall, the venue for the Black Economic Alliance presidential forum. As business owners, campaign staff, and VIPs entered the forum, workers marched and handed leaflets entitled “McDonalds Workers’ Real Talk About Work, Wages & Wealth”, which explained why unions must be part of any real conversation about lifting up Black communities in the South.
“You look at the way that wages have slipped in America. You look at the fact that a rising tide does not lift all boats. And you look at the numbers over as long as I’ve been alive and what you see is: the economy is growing and too many workers are being left out,” said Buttigieg. “And you look at those same numbers and you see something else: fewer and fewer workers belong to a union. And we can change that. But it’s not going to change on its own. That’s why we need to demand more. We demand more from McDonald’s. We demand more from the White House. We demand more from Congress. Everybody has to step up and get this done.”
The three candidates heard directly from Latarsha Smith, who shared her experience of sexual harassment on the job at a South Carolina McDonald’s. Smith, a former McDonald’s worker from Myrtle Beach, was one of 25 McDonald’s workers to announce last month that they’ve filed sexual harassment complaints against the company. Workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union have filed more than 50 complaints against the company since 2016.
“McDonald’s was supposed to protect me. How is it that I—the victim of sexual harassment—was treated worse than the harasser?” said Smith, who joined workers on the strike line in Charleston Saturday. “I’m speaking up today because I refuse to let the word “victim” define me. There are too many workers going through harassment and humiliation on the job. When we speak out and come together, we can force a change at McDonald’s and across the fast food industry.”
Booker embraced Smith after her speech. She was one of many Black women on the strike lines Saturday demanding a seat at the table for better wages and a safe place to work. According to the National Employment Law Project, workers making less than $15 an hour are disproportionately Black — and in particular, Black women. In fact, more than half of Black workers make less than $15 an hour. More than 30% of workers elsewhere in the U.S. have gotten raises through $15/hour laws, but not one of those laws passed in the south, including South Carolina.
Joining together in unions gives the working people the power to push back on these disparities, and South Carolina has a history of organizing to create change. 50 years ago, hundreds of hospital workers — led by Black women and joined by workers of every race — went on strike demanding fair treatment and fair wages.
“This fight against McDonald’s is an American fight,” concluded Booker. “This fight against McDonald’s is for justice. This fight against McDonald’s is for the American dream.”
2020 presidential hopefuls including Booker, Buttigieg and O’Rourke have made bold stands with workers recently, calling out McDonald’s for the company’s failure to protect workers from sexual harassment and honor union rights. In the past month alone, 16 Democratic presidential candidates have demonstrated their support for striking McDonald’s workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union by showing up at strike lines, joining striking workers remotely via phone or video, or standing in solidarity on social media. Last Sunday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders marched alongside striking McDonald’s workers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
And on Friday, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris joined workers on the strike lines in Las Vegas, just days after joining eight senators, including four 2020 hopefuls, in a letter to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook excoriating McDonald’s for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment and “unsafe and intolerable”
50 MORE SEXUAL HARASSMENT COMPLAINTS
The strikes Saturday came after 25 more McDonald’s workers announced the filing of sexual harassment complaints or lawsuits against the company—bringing the total number of complaints brought by workers in the Fight for $15 to more than 50 in the last three years. The combination of suits and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges allege a trail of illegal conduct in both corporate and franchise McDonald’s restaurants across 20 cities—including groping, indecent exposure, propositions for sex and lewd comments by supervisors—against workers as young as 16 years old.
Saturday’s strike also follows an explosive new report by the National Employment Law Project that details an “epidemic” of workplace violence at McDonald’s restaurants across the country. As the report was released last month, nine workers walked off the job at a Chicago McDonald’s that has been the site of more than 30 violent incidents in the last six months alone. Workers filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and called on the agency to launch a systemic investigation into violence at McDonald’s.
FIGHT FOR $15 2020
Workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union also launched Fight for $15 2020 last month to push candidates to embrace unions as the best way to tackle inequality and fight racism. The initiative seeks to make the need to put more workers in unions a defining issue of the 2020 campaign, in much the same way workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union made a $15 minimum wage a flashpoint in the 2016 race for the White House.
At the launch of Fight for $15 2020, presidential hopefuls including Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, Jay Inslee, and Bernie Sanders joined workers on the strike line either in-person or remotely. Kirsten Gillibrand penned an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News and 16 candidates in total voiced their support on social media.Joe Biden, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell, and Elizabeth Warren all tweeted in solidarity with striking workers. Since then, candidates have continued to voice their support on social media and take to the streets with workers in places like Cedar Rapids, Ia. and Las Vegas, Nev..