Iowa McDonald’s workers join nationwide walkouts

By Mike Kuhlenbeck
May 28, 2019

McDonald’s workers in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines went on strike for “living wages and better working conditions” as part of a national day of action May 23.

McDonald’s, the most profitable fast food chain in the world, is the second-largest private sector employer in the U.S. Last year the company generated more than $38.5 billion in sales from its 14,000-plus U.S. stores and $7.7 billion in revenue.

Despite the company’s success, its workers barely survive. Many are forced into poverty and rely on public assistance and second jobs. They can barely pay their bills — let alone afford necessities.

The strikes were organized by Fight for $15 to coincide with a McDonald’s shareholders meeting in Dallas. The strikes in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and more than a dozen cities nationwide focused on the need for unions, wage increases and better working conditions.

The strike also highlighted issues within the food service industry that far too many shy away from addressing: sexual harassment and workplace violence.

Shortly before the strike, 23 complaints of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment were filed against McDonald’s by Fight for $15, the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Shawn Sebastian, movement politics organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, told Workers World, “Sexual harassment at McDonald’s is widespread and systemic across its locations, and sexual harassment at McDonald’s franchises in Iowa is no exception.”

“Brave workers in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, who had experienced sexual harassment, stepped out from behind the counters and onto the strike line to take a stand,” Sebastian noted.

The National Employment Law Project released a report May 22, “Behind the Arches: How McDonald’s Fails to Protect Workers from Workplace Violence.” The report found “a pattern of violence” in McDonald’s restaurants, “from belligerent customers irate over missing ketchup or straws, to armed criminals demanding cash and fist fights among customers in the lobby.”

According to he report, “Verbal threats, harassment and other types of assault often go unreported to the authorities. Regardless of media attention, these incidents of workplace violence regularly place both workers and customers at risk.”

Both Iowa demonstrations were supported by the Service Employees Union (SEIU). There was also a strong turnout of Iowa CCI members, as well as unionists, on the pickets.

While McDonald’s was the main target, the message also being sent by the workers was directed at all food service companies, corporations and elected officials.

Cedar Rapids

At 7 a.m., more than 50 McDonald’s workers and allies formed a picket line outside the storefront of a “Mickey D’s” on 1530 1st Avenue East. With the number of people coming and going, the turnout was probably as many as 100. They marched through the restaurant’s drive-through, chanting, “Hold the pickles, hold the fries; make our wages supersize!”

The speaking portion of the rally was led by SEIU Local 199 President Cathy Glasson. Workers shared their stories, grievances and demands.

Cedar Rapids McDonald’s employee Kelly Osburn provides for her 5-year-old grandson. She joined the strike because she “works very hard for a very small wage” and supports the call for a union, higher wages, sick leave and paid vacation.

In a video message directed at McDonald’s, Osburn said, “We’re the ones running your company, not you guys sitting on the fat paychecks. We are making the Frappés, we are making the hamburgers, and we make $8.25 an hour. It’s just not fair.”

Des Moines

At noon the same day, more than 100 McDonald’s workers and supporters rallied outside the restaurant at 3610 Merle Hay Road. Again, with people coming and going, the turnout numbered in the hundreds.

Several strikers carried signs with slogans like “Raise the minimum wage,” “Iowa needs unions” and “We can’t survive on $7.25,” a reference to the current state minimum wage. Among the rallying cries, strikers chanted, “We work! We sweat! We want $15 on our checks!”

Iowa CCI organizer Sebastian said in Des Moines that, like in Cedar Rapids and other cities, workers stood “shoulder to shoulder” with community organizations “to take a stand against corporate power and sexual harassment and for $15 and a union.”

The strikers were joined by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently announced his candidacy for president. His appearance made local headlines, but almost obscured the fact that this was an event of and by the workers.

A movement of and for workers

In other parts of the country, a handful of Democratic presidential candidates voiced support for the strikers, including Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, Jay Inslee and Cory Booker.

While much of the media spotlight was cast on the presidential hopefuls who joined the rallies, the workers are taking the biggest risk by standing up for their rights. They are not political props. They are fighting for their lives.

The fact that presidential candidates have taken notice is a testament to the years of organizing by workers in these sectors. Since 2012, workers across the country have fought for $15 hourly wages and the right to form a union. The Fight for $15 came to Iowa three years later.

The May 23 strike represented not just the ongoing struggle of fast food employees, but all workers confronting the high-tech nightmare of late-stage capitalism.

This movement was started by workers, and workers are still leading the charge.