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Commentary: McDonald’s workers march in the footsteps of MLK

Protest for $15 Wage (copy)

Protesters calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage lined the sidewalk in front of the McDonald's restaurant on Spring Street in downtown Charleston on Nov. 26, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Nearly 52 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis who were demanding higher pay, safe working conditions and the right to a union. “It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages,” he said. Those were Dr. King’s final days, and some of his final words – and they still ring true today.

He knew then that economic and racial justice were intertwined. That’s why if Dr. King were alive, I’m sure he would have marched with us in South Carolina on Monday. He would be standing with us in our call for $15 and union rights from one of the world’s most powerful companies, McDonald’s.

I have been working at McDonald’s on and off for over seven years. While the company makes billions of dollars each year, I’m paid only $8.75 an hour. If I didn’t get food stamps, I would have no way to feed my family. If it weren’t for Medicaid, we’d go without health care, and my son would suffer.

That’s what I’m facing. And I’m far from alone.

Earlier this month, two black women working as McDonald’s senior executives in Dallas filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company, alleging systemic racism. Their alleged mistreatment ranged from overt racism — like being called the n-word and be told that they were “too angry” — to systemic hiring practices that favored white men over more experienced people of color. From 2015 to 2019, the number of black executives at the vice president level or higher fell from 42 to just seven, they allege in their suit.

Meanwhile, nearly 1 of every 3 black franchisees has left the company since 2015, the suit alleges, as the disparity between cash flow at their restaurants and those of their white counterparts grows

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When it comes to front-line workers, it’s no better. Like me, many of us are paid so little that we rely on public assistance to get by. And when we joined together to call for $15 an hour, McDonald’s responded by threatening, intimidating and even firing some of us. Then, when it got caught, the company colluded with the Trump administration to push through a settlement that enabled it to refuse to take responsibility for the way its workers – the overwhelming majority of whom were of color – were treated for the simple act of joining together for a better life.

In the past three years, more than 50 McDonald’s workers have filed sexual harassment charges and suits against the company. The overwhelming majority were filed by workers of color, including allegations of assault, groping and retaliation for speaking out. Despite our repeated attempts to meet with McDonald’s to come up with a solution to the problem, our voices have been ignored, over and over again.

And that’s true from California to North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and even Brazil, where we have stood up to call out racial discrimination on the job — from being subject to demeaning and racist remarks, like being called “ghetto” or “burnt,” to being told that “blacks need not apply” for jobs at the stores.

And then there’s the issue of how McDonald’s exploits prison labor. An investigation by the Marshall Project revealed some poor people in Mississippi were being forced to work in places like McDonald’s to try to earn enough to pay off debts and get out of prison.

We can draw a line straight from 1968 in Memphis to now in Charleston where black workers are demanding union rights. It’s time to lift our voices together again, in the same tradition of organizing for our families and our communities. We’ll keep marching until McDonald’s listens to us.

Taiwanna Milligan is a Charleston McDonald’s worker and a leader in the Fight for $15 and for forming a union.

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