Some McDonald’s student guestworkers held a teach-in at the chain’s flagship store today in River North to show their solidarity for organizing Chicago fast-food workers and to expose the threats of deportation and severe exploitation they say they have faced at the hands of the company.
Standing in support of the guestworkers, members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a union for downtown fast-food and retail workers that is pushing for a $15 minimum wage, discussed documented and undocumented workers’ rights to organize.
“We have rights with documents or without,” Lorraine Chavez, outreach coordinator with the Fight for 15 campaign, told the student guestworkers, who originally worked in McDonald’s restaurants in central Pennsylvania, and their allies inside the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s.
The student guestworkers from Latin America and Asia pay up to $4,000 each to participate in the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program, expecting decent work and a cultural exchange. But instead, they say McDonald’s used them as a sub-minimum wage exploitable workforce.
“We are complaining, because there was a contract that we signed with the employer, and that contract was violated in several ways as regards to living conditions, transportation, working conditions and the number of hours that we were supposed to be working,” said Jorge Rios, an exchange student from Argentina working at McDonald’s as part of the J-1 visa program.
“We are demanding that the CEO of McDonald’s Don Thompson agree to meet with us in person, so that we can tell him about all the abuses that we suffer as McDonald’s workers.”
After the teach-in, the students and their supporters caravanned to McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook seeking a high-level meeting and to deliver a petition with 60,000 signatures demanding an end exploitative practices at McDonald’s.
Earlier this month, the student guestworkers working at McDonald’s stores in Pennsylvania joined the National Guestworker Alliance as members and went on strike, calling on the fast-food giant to take responsibility for labor abuse at its restaurants.
Student guestworkers said they've received as few as four hours of work a week at $7.25 an hour. And with housing deductions, their net pay is far below minimum wage, they said.
Other student guestworkers said they have experienced extremely long shifts with no overtime pay, in addition to inappropriate living conditions.
McDonald’s announced March 14th that it would sever ties with the franchisee that employed the students, said Elizabeth Parisian, policy director for Stand Up! Chicago, which helped coordinate today’s action.
“They found the courage to speak out and actually got the attention of corporate McDonald’s, which is kind of unusual,” she said, adding that it was also a "huge victory."
McDonald's USA released the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to today's action:
We take the well-being of employees working in McDonald’s restaurants, including foreign student workers, seriously. We immediately addressed the allegations in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, upon learning of the situation, and the franchisee has agreed to leave the McDonald’s system. Additionally, we have offered to speak to the Harrisburg foreign student workers on an individual basis to try to address their issues. We have also provided resources to all of our franchisees to ensure compliance with our brand values, as well as the letter and spirit of the State Department program, which brings foreign student workers to the U.S. McDonald's company-owned restaurant policy is to not participate in the J-1 foreign student worker program, as either a sponsor or as a host employer.
Parisian, however, says the student guestworkers' situation is a small part of a huge labor problem at McDonald’s.
“It’s not just this guestworker program that McDonald’s needs to be accountable for and needs to make changes to, but it’s also the fact that a lot of their McDonald’s employees are also living like guestworkers, basically with not enough to feed their families, keep a roof over their head; not enough to live a decent life at all,” she said.
She added that a good portion of McDonald’s workers may not speak English and are undocumented.
“This is something McDonald’s knows, and there’s a reason for that,” she said. “I think a lot of McDonald’s owners like to have a very vulnerable workforce, because it means never give them raises and give them bad working conditions, and basically exploit them because they think ‘Here’s a vulnerable population. They’re not going to speak out.’”
Tyree Johnson has worked at McDonald’s in Chicago for 21 years. He spoke with Progress Illinois about why he stands in solidarity with the guestworkers and why he’s fighting for a $15 minimum wage:
The students’ stop in Chicago is one of many destinations as they make their way around the country speaking with labor organizations and other McDonald’s employees.
“The work the guestworkers are doing is really, really important, not just for other guestworkers in their position, but also people who are living in this country every day [and working] in places like McDonald’s and experiencing the same conditions,” Parisian said.