Fight for 15 Stages Sex Harassment Strike Amid Own Misconduct Allegations

SEIU-backed protest has been hotbed for claims of harassment, misconduct

Demonstrators fighting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage march through downtown during rush hour on May 23, 2017 in Chicago
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McDonald's workers are staging a protest against sexual harassment, but the groups backing the one-day strike face their own misconduct allegations from female employees.

The Fight for 15 movement has embraced the viral #MeToo movement to bolster its quest for $15 minimum wages in fast-food restaurants. On Tuesday, the group helped orchestrate a protest from McDonalds employees and labor activists aimed at raising attention to working conditions and sexual harassment in the fast-food industry.

"Fed up with McDonald's failure to address groping, propositions for sex and other illegal behavior in its stores, workers … will wage the first-ever nationwide strike to combat sexual harassment," Fight for 15, which did not respond to request for comment, said in a Tweet announcing the strike. The group said that "McDonald's has a responsibility to protect every worker from sexual harassment and assault" on its Facebook page.

McDonald's said it has taken numerous steps to ensure a safe work environment for workers in its franchise restaurants. It has partnered with the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network to craft policies and training to address harassment in the workplace, be it from coworkers or customers.

"We have strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment," a spokesman said in a statement. "To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response including RAINN, to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald's does so in a secure environment every day."

Fight for 15 and its chief backer, labor giant Service Employees International Union, have faced a number of sexual misconduct accusations in recent years, some of which have resulted in firings, suspensions, and public outcry from inside the labor movement. In October, Scott Courtney, the head of the Fight for 15 campaign and SEIU vice president, tendered his resignation after numerous colleagues and former union organizers came forward alleging that he used sex as a factor in promotions and advancement within the organization. A former SEIU organizer told the Washington Free Beacon that the allegations against Courtney did not surprise her, saying the union's "HR processes for investigating sexual harassment [represent] a culture of protecting the organization."

Courtney was not the only Fight for 15 official ensnared by sexual misconduct complaints. By November five other union officials affiliated with the fast-food protest movement had been forced out. The president of the union's United Healthcare Workers West was accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit brought by a California organizer—the union denies the allegations.

SEIU spokeswoman Sara Lonardo said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon that the union is "committed to ensuring that our own work environment reflects the same values that we fight for on behalf of all workers across the service sector." It takes an aggressive stance against sexual misconduct in the workplace. The McDonald's protests are aimed at empowering female workers to assert their rights, which she said would be bolstered by union representation.

"We are committed to cultivating a work environment that is reflective of our values, and we will not tolerate mistreatment of anyone," Lonardo said. "We are uniquely equipped to both continuously improve our workplace and forge ahead in fulfilling our mission to empower workers to improve their own lives and workplaces. This includes supporting and standing with the brave women demanding a union and speaking out against the abuse, bullying, harassment, and discrimination at McDonald's."

Labor watchdogs questioned whether SEIU is the best spokesman for such a movement. Michael Saltsman, research director at the pro-free market Employment Policies Institute, said the union would be better off cleaning its own house before accusing others. The union's attempt to ally itself with the #MeToo movement as the same organization has been rocked by misconduct scandals at the very top struck Saltsman as hypocritical.

"The SEIU has suffered many setbacks, but few have been more embarrassing and harmful for those involved than its sordid sexual harassment scandals," Saltsman said. "Sexual harassment in any workplace is wrong, but the SEIU is the last organization that should be lecturing others on how to reduce it. Union officials should know better than to throw stones from glass houses."