McDonald’s and Franchisee Accused of Civil Rights Violations, Racism, Harassment, Janet Sparks

Richard Griffin, NLRB's general counsel said "the complaints strike new ground in treating McDonald's as a joint employer." He explained that meant the franchisor could be held liable along with its franchisees for any violations."
January 22, 2015

McDonald’s and Franchisee Accused of Civil Rights Violations, Racism, Harassment
Janet Sparks


SOUTH BOSTON, Virginia – Ten McDonald's fast food workers, who were fired last year because they were told "there are too many black people working in the store," filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today against the franchisor. They allege there is a widespread pattern of racism, sexual discrimination and harassment at three restaurants in Virginia.

The former workers stated in their Civil Rights Act lawsuit against McDonald's and franchisee Soweva Co. that a supervisor called black employees "bitch," "ratchet," and "ghetto." A Bloomberg business report stated this morning, "She allegedly removed her false teeth and suggested having oral sex with employees." Another supervisor called a Hispanic employee "dirty Mexican" and "hot Mexican," and sent employees pictures of his genitals, as well as inappropriately touched workers, the lawsuit states.

Roderic V.O. Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs expressed today, "The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is deeply disturbed by the allegations of discrimination in this case and is committed to helping the fired workers win justice. Our organization has a long history of fighting racism and discrimination, including landmark cases involving numerous national restaurant chains. And we will do whatever it takes to support the workers in their effort to hold McDonald's responsible for the treatment of its employees."

The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address discrimination and entrenched poverty.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia by 10 former workers at three stores in Clarkesville and South Boston. They allege McDonald's last May simultaneously fired more than a dozen black workers who, "didn't fit the profile" desired at its restaurants. The highest-ranking managers had told workers that it was "too dark" in the restaurants and that they "need to get the ghetto out of the store."

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project explained the lawsuit this way in a statement:

"This lawsuit is Exhibit A for why workers at McDonalds need the right to a union. The alleged details of discrimination are horrific, but what is also disturbing is that the workers had no place to turn. When they brought their complaints to McDonald's corporate, they were told to take their case to the very franchisee who fired them. Roughly 90 percent of McDonald's stores are franchised. The company is the landlord, choosing the location(s) the franchise owner can operate, supply chain vendors, pricing, and store hours, all to protect and promote the continuity of the brand. McDonald's hi-tech quality service protocols dictate highly-specific customer scripts, cleanliness and appearance rules, and real-time monitoring of worker hours, staffing levels, clocking-in and -out times, and revenues at each outlet. There's nothing inherently amiss about this growing outsourcing model, until something goes wrong in the workplace. And, according to a suit filed Thursday, something went very wrong in Virginia."

Owens said all too often, corporate franchisors like McDonald's control everything until there is a problem with their workers. "Then, suddenly, they are not responsible and plead ignorance. But despite its repeated assertions that it has no control over its workers, all the evidence points to the fact that McDonald's is indeed the boss. And the encouraging thing here is that means the $5.6 billion company has the power to fix this.

Willie Betts, who was a cook at the South Boston McDonald's until he was fired last May said, "All of a sudden, they let me go, for no other reason than I 'didn't fit the profile' they wanted at the store." He said he had no idea what management meant by "the right profile" until he saw others being fired. "I worked at McDonald's for almost five years. I was on time every day at four o'clock in the morning to open the store, and I never had a disciplinary write-up. They took away the only source of income I have to support my family," the worker stated.

McDonald's under increased scrutiny
The lawsuits come as McDonald's faces increased scrutiny for its role as an employer at franchised stores, and it carries significant implications in the ongoing debate about whether the fast-food giant can be held responsible for the well-being of employees at its restaurants. Despite McDonald's repeated assertions that it is not the boss at these stores, federal officials late last year filed a dozen complaints charging the company was indeed a joint employer responsible for hindering protest violations at stores across the country. The workers' suit filed Thursday names both McDonald's Corp. and McDonald's USA and franchise owner Michael Simon and his company, Soweva Co., as defendants.

The lawsuit, backed by the local NAACP, comes after a series of strikes against fast-food companies across the country for higher minimum wages by law. The Service Employees International Union has spearheaded the campaign, engaging the media to report on the fast-food worker strikes, which has also caught the attention of politicians.

Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board's top prosecutor rejected McDonald's assertion that it was not responsible for retaliating against employees from franchised stores that protested.. NLRB vowed to bring charges not against the small business owner but also against the world's largest hamburger franchisor. The government agency then filed 13 cases against McDonald's in December, involving 78 charges against both the franchisor and franchisees.

Richard Griffin, NLRB's general counsel said "the complaints strike new ground in treating McDonald's as a joint employer." He explained that meant the franchisor could be held liable along with its franchisees for any violations."

But not everyone is buying the notion of franchisor McDonald's Corporation being in violation of civil rights in trying to disrupt employees in franchises to assemble and protest. A spokesperson for the International Franchise made this statement to Blue MauMau,

"This filing is yet another flailing attempt by the SEIU to build on the flawed reasoning of the NLRB's general counsel: to exert a non-existent joint employer status on a company and achieve their stated goal of dismantling the franchise relationship to organize workers in an effort to grow their dwindling membership ranks. Decades of established law demonstrate that franchisors do not control the terms and conditions of the employees of their independently-owned and operated local franchise businesses. IFA will contend in the appropriate forum any attempt to change the current joint employer standard to preserve the sanctity of the franchise model to ensure its continued economic growth. Further, any allegations of workplace issues should be addressed through the current regulatory process."

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