January 23, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – A new lawsuit filed this week alleging McDonald’s managers in Virginia repeatedly harrassed African-American and Hispanic workers, is another blow to the fast food giant’s well-cultivated image, and could ultimately knockout its long-held claim that the conglomerate should be seen as separate from its franchisees.
Ten plaintiffs, ages 29 to 53, are alleging that managers at three McDonald’s restaurants in South Boston and Clarksville, Virgina and run by the Soweva Co. franchise, routinely hurled racist epitaphs at minority employees, complained “there are too many black people in the store,” and generally favored white employees. The workers involved in the lawsuit also claim that the stores’ highest-ranking supervisors “inappropriately touched” female workers, solicited sex, and sent them lewd photographs.
Soweva Co. became the franchise operator for the South Boston and Clarksville McDonald’s outlets in 2013. Back then, the lawsuit alleges that the majority of the restaurants’ employees were African-American, but that management soon set about reducing the number of African-American employees, and hiring more white employees.
The McDonald’s workers alleging the offenses were ultimately fired, or quit in disgust.
“This lawsuit is Exhibit A for why workers at McDonalds need the right to a union,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project [NELP], said in a statement. "The alleged details of discrimination are horrific, but what is also disturbing is that the workers had no place to turn.”
Workers say that they appealed directly to McDonald’s cooperate for help, but were simply foisted off to the exact same managers who allegedly harrassed and later terminated them.
“If the rules are rigged so that giant corporate franchisors reap all the benefits but incur none of the penalties of their franchisees' actions, the link between work and economic opportunity will be further weakened for millions of working families across our entire economy,” Owens added.
McDonald’s has 20 days to respond to the workers’ suit. The multi-national conglomerate, along with the rest of the multi-billion dollar fast food industry, is presently embroiled in a pitched battle with low-wage workers nationwide fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to unionize.
Contrary to popular beleif, more than 70 percent of McDonald’s workers are over the age of 20, and one in four is caring for a child at home. Most are struggling to stay afloat.
The “Golden Arches” recently rolled out a new commercial in a bid to bolster its sagging sales and tarnished image – but it landed poorly and was widely criticized for being both exploitative and hypocritical.
“This is not good for their image,” senior NELP attorney Tsedeye Gebreselassie told LaborPress. “We are seeing more willingness to look at who is responsible for what's happening in the workplace.”
McDonald’s issued a statement steadfastly claiming that it has a “long-standing history of embracing the diversity of employees, independent franchisees, customers and suppliers, and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values.”
McDonald’s went futher saying that its independent owner-operators – like the Soweva group – “share a commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants.”
Among the previously mentioned charges, the lawsuit also alleges that McDonald’s mangers in Virginia told at least one gay employee that he cold be appointed a shift manger if he would “tone his gayness down.”
Although shocking, this latest lawsuit represents a series of lawsuits alleging wrongdoing on McDonald’s part, and could successfully challenge that corporation’s ability to distance itself from its franchisees.
“The more pressure that is brought to bear on them to take ownership, they can't keep saying it's not on us,” Gebreselassie added.