This time, however, things were a little different. Not only did the latest strikes dovetail with the filing of 25 complaints against the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, but demonstrators were also joined by a handful of Democratic presidential candidates including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We have got to focus on the fast-food industry, we have got to focus on McDonald’s,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who used his email database to mobilize supporters, told protesters gathered in Dallas.
In a phone call to strikers in Kansas City, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said, “These massive fast-food restaurant corporations who are profiting to the tunes of billions of dollars a year but, yet, at the same time are suppressing the living wages of residents is unacceptable."
The protests make clear that the problems animating #MeToo and the Fight for $15 movements are critical issues in American life, ones that will help define the political priorities in 2020 and beyond. However, it is dangerous to focus disproportionately on fast-food companies.
Though the industry has become an easy, ready-made target for activists, their efforts threaten to obscure plights that plague the entire service and restaurant industries — constituencies that lack the same level of union support that tends to draw presidential candidates to the picket lines.
“If you want an example of how the 1 percent have gotten wealthier on the backs of working people, here you have it: the fast-food industry,” Bill de Blasio, who has targeted quick-service restaurants in New York City with legislation as well as personal boycotts, said in 2016. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this point of view is fashionable within progressive circles. A brief survey of the fast-food cultural canon will yield censorious entries (“Super Size Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Food, Inc.,” and their ilk), whereas the restaurant industry is largely glamorized (“The Mind of a Chef,” “Chef’s Table”).
But according to recent Labor Department data, nine of the 12 lowest-paying jobs in America cluster largely around the food industry as a whole — fast or slow. This includes positions like cooks, servers, barbacks, food-prep workers, dishwashers and cashiers, over a million of which are held by undocumented immigrants working under vulnerable arrangements. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 40 percent of American restaurant workers live in near poverty. Simply put, restaurant and food service workers show up sick, stay late, rarely receive benefits, overtime pay or secure schedules, and often require public assistance to live. This precarious dynamic extends everywhere from Popeyes to New York City’s Per Se, which is one of many five-star restaurants to stand accused of wage theft in recent years.
But the specters of harassment and abuse aren’t limited to fast-food franchises and the most famous purveyors of haute cuisine. They’re an epidemic. A report by the group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) found that “more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry,” this despite the fact that only seven percent of American women work in restaurants.
In addition to suffering harassment from co-workers and superiors, the ROC study concluded, 90 percent of women in the food service industry and 70 percent of men reported issues of sexual harassment from customers. This is a paradigm only enhanced by the tipped wage system in which a predominantly female workforce must strike a delicate balance between deflecting inappropriate advances from customers, managers and ownership and maintaining the tips and good shifts needed to make ends meet. As of 2019, only seven states guarantee tipped workers a full minimum wage, albeit through legislation that is loosely enforced; service workers elsewhere are, by and large, left to hope for big crowds, good weather and generous, respectful patrons.
With fast-food protests slated to coincide with major events in the upcoming election season, such as the first two Democratic presidential debates, the battle for worker rights and economic reform will almost certainly include images of fast-food workers and picket lines. But real, industry-wide reform transcends election promises and is much too complicated to fit on a picket sign.