‘Fight for $15’ Files Charges Against McDonald’s for Illegally Spying on Workers

The fast food labor activist campaign Fight for $15 has filed an unfair labor practice charge against McDonald’s, accusing the company of illegally spying on its workers.

On Thursday, the National Fast Food Workers Union, a branch of the Service Employees International Union, which heads the Fight for $15 campaign filed the charge with the National Labor Relations Board, which accuses McDonald’s of engaging in “unlawful surveillance of workers and union organizers participating in the Fight for $15 campaign, using tactics including extensive monitoring of social media activity.” The charge follows an investigation by Motherboard that revealed how McDonald’s intelligence team was spying on employees involved in the Fight for $15 movement, labeling them a security threat. 

Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it is illegal for employers to interfere with workers’ right to engage in concerted activities, form unions, and organize, and illegal for employers to surveil or create the impression of surveillance of these activities. 

“We believe there’s a clear violation of the [labor law], which prohibits interference with employees’ union activity and their right to act in a coordinated way,” said Daniel Rosenthal, the attorney for Fight For $15 who filed the charge. 

Fight for $15 hopes that an investigation by the NLRB will shed more light on how the company keeps track of workers who are involved in labor activism. 

“McDonald’s didn’t need to spy on us,” Rita Blalock, a McDonald’s worker in Raleigh, North Carolina, told Motherboard. “Our message has been out in the open from the start: Pay us enough so we don’t have to rely on food stamps to get by and respect our right to join together in a union.”

Do you, or did you used to, work at McDonald’s? Do you know about the company’s surveillance of workers? Or do you know anything else about companies spying on their workers? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, on Wickr at lorenzofb, OTR chat at lorenzofb@jabber.ccc.de, or email lorenzofb@vice.com. You can contact Lauren Kaori Gurley by email lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.

After an unfair labor practice charge is filed with the NLRB, the agency conducts an investigation to determine whether the charge has merit and can request an investigatory subpoena to gather evidence from an employer, which typically includes internal documents, emails, and other communications. 

In this case, if the NLRB finds sufficient evidence that McDonald’s broke the law, it will issue a formal complaint and McDonald’s will have the opportunity to settle. If the company chooses not to settle, it will face a hearing before an administrative judge and can be required to post notices at its worksites informing workers of their rights to organize free from retaliation. This process can take months or even years. 

In February, Motherboard revealed that McDonald’s employs a secretive intelligence team to monitor employees, including by using social media monitoring tools, in an attempt to keep tabs on labor organizers, as well as try to identify workers involved in labor activism, and who they are working with to organize strikes, protests, or attempt to form unions. 

“The important thing about this is that this surveillance is being done by McDonald’s Corp rather than its franchises,” Rosenthal said. “This supports the position the Fight for $15 has taken since the movement started that labor relations are coordinated and controlled by McDonalds.”

For years, McDonald’s has refused to sit down at the bargaining table with McDonald’s workers to discuss concerns ranging from pay to sexual harassment, claiming that workers are not their employees, but those of their franchises. The National Labor Relations Board has previously issued two decisions that found it was illegal for employers to spy on workers’ organizing on social media, including a 2019 decision that it was illegal for a company to spy on its pro-union workers’ members-only Facebook page. These cases could be used as precedent for the agency’s McDonald’s investigation.

The filing lists 21 McDonald’s locations in 13 states where Fight For $15 protests have occurred since October 2020 that may have been targeted by McDonald’s surveillance program.

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