Fast Food, Precarious Workers

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
Today—as in 1968—it remains to be seen if McDonald’s pivot toward racial justice will mean anything for how it treats its scores of Black workers.

Ronald McDonald believes that Black lives matter. And now that he has proclaimed it, his burger empire has been trying to convince us of it at every turn. After first tweeting in solidarity with protests for Black lives, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, McDonald’s has tried to convince the public that they indeed mean it.

McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski offered that the company loves Black lives so much that it has “probably” created more Black millionaires than any other corporation. After a summer of protest, McDonald’s announced a partnership with rapper Travis Scott and even named a meal after him. Black dollars also matter to Ronald, and McDonald’s hoped the collaboration, featuring bacon-topped burgers, action figures, and a few pieces of apparel, would help it regain lost ground with its “younger African-American and multicultural consumers.” But Black millionaires and denim shorts emblazoned with the Golden Arches may not entirely retire the question of whether the clown from McDonald’s indeed values the Black lives of Earth. And despite all the claims and donations being made by the brand, there is good reason to have doubts.

Across every industry and sector, corporations are sending the business equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” to the masses of people engaged in the most recent fights to dismantle white supremacy and prove that another world is indeed possible. Yet McDonald’s may be the most practiced in capitalizing on the chaos that accompanies racial uprisings. Since its reorganization as a franchising machine—a franchise is a corporate entity that leases the right to operate individual restaurants under predetermined terms—under the direction of Ray Kroc in 1955, McDonald’s has been ingratiating itself with Black consumers through its network of Black franchisees.

McDonald’s has used 1968 as a reference point in its stance that it can deploy its business as a force for racial justice. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., McDonald’s was inspired by Richard Nixon’s Black-capitalism funding for Black businesses, while also forced to mitigate the anxieties of white franchise owners in the center of the urban crisis. Black franchisees of McDonald’s promised that their locations would provide much-needed jobs and support to Black communities languishing at the end of the Great Society and the beginning of Nixon’s law-and-order regime. So, in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and the other worlds made out of racial segregation, a Black McDonald’s was born out of confrontations and held within it the possibilities of Black economic power and community investment and maybe even real change. But until revolution came, a hot hamburger and a cold drink enjoyed in a somewhat Black-owned business would suffice.

Since the first Black businessman franchised a McDonald’s in 1968, many have pointed to Black franchisees’ relative proximity to the customers they serve, and to the corporation’s philanthropic interventions on behalf of Black organizations, as evidence that McDonald’s has always been on the right side of Black history. Franchisees are not quite independent small-business owners, and they are still vulnerable to the same market forces that can shutter a locally owned operation. But from the perspective of those who argue that more Black businesses can ensure more prosperous Black communities—an idea that has been invigorated due to the despair over the property damage suffered by Black neighborhoods this summer—a Black-owned McDonald’s franchise becomes a sign of Black ownership.

Yet, on the main streets of Black America, whether it be South Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, an independently owned Black business is unlikely to be able to hire the number of employees that the Black-franchised one down the street can. There are roughly 2 million Black-owned businesses in the United States, but only 107,000 of them have employees. Meanwhile, at the Black-owned McDonald’s, where employees often start out making minimum wage, all the dollars earned at that drive-through flow outside the neighborhood in licensing fees, rents, equipment leases, and advertising funds. Both businesses allow locals to “buy Black,” but the extent to which businesses actually can enrich Black lives is a question that is all too often not uttered in the rush to offer business support as a means of supporting Black people.

McDonald’s has long understood that, and has pointed to its small but mighty core of Black franchisees as the proof that its enterprise does, in fact, care. The corporation deploys Black elites within its ranks and holds up its most prosperous Black franchisees—and invests in the pipeline programs and diversity-recruitment fairs, and partners with pro-Black business forces, from Black media outlets to the Small Business Administration—to counter any charge that racism exists in McDonaldland. This sleight of hand has worked more effectively in the past.


Why Seek Impossible Foods?

By Paolina Lu

The hot summer of 2020 led pundits to ask if the nation was reliving the horrors of 1968, and smartly, historians have argued against such facile comparisons. The sites of civil unrest were different than the ones in 1968, with affluent shopping districts and neighborhoods bearing some of the consequences of property damage. The virulent white supremacists in the White House, coupled with their indifference toward the COVID-19 crisis, may have also radicalized more people and pushed them to take action, because they saw how the racial profiling and killing of Black people were symptoms of a broken, racist nation. Yet there has been continuity—a prized attribute of fast food—in how McDonald’s has related to a moment of chaos and tension: it has sent a message that McDonald’s has something of substance for Black communities, if only Black people were willing to believe it when it says that they do matter.

Today, as was the case in 1968, it remains to be seen if Ronald’s pivot toward racial justice will mean anything for how his beloved McDonald’s treats its scores of Black workers, who have been at the forefront of demands to improve wages and working conditions for decades. While cashiers and cooks are walking out of restaurants and organizing socially distant car protests, the company’s former Black executives and Black franchisees—many of whom have built lucrative careers in the McDonald’s system—are using the courts and curious media outlets to expose its practices of racial discrimination among its upper echelons. This aggrieved group claims that McDonald’s—often heralded as a leader in corporate diversity due to its long history of recruitment programs for white-collar workers of color—has constricted advancement opportunities at its headquarters and in the field, in its assignment of Black franchisees to less profitable areas for business.

McDonald’s, like the rest of us, had a really long summer. As the global fast-food powerhouse contended with the ongoing crises of 2020—the coronavirus and the aftermath of the George Floyd protests—it scrambled to respond to a slew of accusations. McDonald’s was not alone in that endeavor; US-based companies all leaned on marketing and communications teams, and consulting firms, to respond to challenges to long-standing practices. Social media provided a real-time chronicle of the complaints from current and former McDonald’s employees who seized the moment to add their anecdotes to the collection of counternarratives tweeted and posted regularly, unveiling the hypocrisy of corporate shows of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other racial-justice struggles.

Fast food has long been in the business of representing itself as having the capacity to meet the challenges of crisis.

A few years after the opening of the first Black-owned McDonald’s franchise in Chicago, a local disaster captured the ways in which McDonald’s was appearing in Black life beyond being the delivery vehicle for Big Macs and Happy Meals. One April morning in 1974, the residents of the Altgeld Gardens Homes public-housing development on Chicago’s Far South Side looked up to the sky to see a cloud of tetrachloride, from a local chemical-storage facility, hovering about them. One of the massive, state-run housing complexes built in the 1940s to accommodate Black World War II defense-industry workers, Altgeld Gardens had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s, like the similarly situated towns within towns designed to maintain segregation in major cities. The surrounding chemical plants and factories made residents vulnerable to a number of illnesses and incidents, like the industrial accident in 1974. An adviser to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency called for an evacuation of Altgeld that afternoon, but the city and state failed to take any serious action until late that evening. Evacuees fashioned masks out of cloth rags and were eventually taken to as many as three different shelter sites before they could try to get some sleep that night. There was no certainty that their homes would remain intact in their absence.

In the midst of a day that highlighted the worst of state failure, environmental racism, and housing inequality, the Altgeld residents acknowledged the one entity that seemed to be helpful: McDonald’s. After a terrifying day, the residents gathered at a local high school auditorium to hear updates on where they would spend the night, while feasting on a thousand hamburgers and drinks donated by their neighborhood Black McDonald’s franchisee. Later, the national body of Black McDonald’s franchise owners issued a statement about the leak and offered: “We can always be counted upon in a crisis.”

Who can be counted upon in our current crisis?

In the context of a global pandemic exacerbated by a reckless head of state, and in a moment when people are regularly taking to the streets to protest racial injustice, this is a difficult question to answer. But corporations and other agents of the private sector have consistently pretended that they are answering the many questions that this crisis has prompted.  Just think to the years the Black pundit Tavis Smiley partnered with the notoriously discriminatory lender Wells Fargo to offer economic-empowerment seminars to Black and brown audiences, before being pressured to sever ties with the bank. Or, more recently, the cavalcade of rappers, from Kanye West to Ice Cube, who have tried to convince Black Americans that President Trump had their best economic interests in mind—citing his commitment to Black entrepreneurship—even as Trump also promised white suburban housewives that he would protect them from nonexistent fair-housing initiatives and disparaged majority-Black cities and congressional districts.

McDonald’s is no different. Over the past few months, its corporate heads have received reports that some franchisees were failing to offer workers sufficient personal protective equipment. They’ve also been the target of criticism for their failure to extend the corporate-owned stores’ policy of offering paid sick leave to workers who need to quarantine to more than 90 percent of franchised locations. And yet McDonald’s continued to ignore the cries of its workers, while celebrating other frontline workers with free meals and advertisements overflowing with gratitude. By summer, worker concerns were drowned out as the killing of George Floyd forced McDonald’s to focus on its Black Lives Matter messaging. Its raised fist came by way of a text-only social-media video that invoked the names of Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor, and announced donations to the NAACP and Urban League (two recipients of McDonald’s’ corporate giving for decades).

Fast food promises efficiency and consistency to consumers. So when natural disaster strikes or a pandemic upends everyone’s way of life, the industry goes into overdrive to ensure that it can return to what it has established as normalcy as soon as possible. McDonald’s has made a particular habit of boasting about its ability to recover quickly from disruption.

In 1992, after Los Angeles was set ablaze in the aftermath of the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, the CEO of McDonald’s proudly declared that the company was spared property damage because it had amassed so much racial goodwill over the years by employing Black workers and making Black franchise owners wealthy. What McDonald’s left out from this narrative—which was not wholly true, since McDonald’s was, in fact, hit but recovered more quickly and suffered less damage than its business neighbors—was that they did more than enjoy the benefit of trickle-down Black empowerment. During the Los Angeles rebellion, McDonald’s remained open to serve National Guardsmen dispatched to the city, and a local franchise owner provided lunches to a local school because truckers could not or would not deliver food to the area.

Since the spring, our televisions, computer screens, and telephones have offered a seemingly endless stream of commercials assuring us that our favorite and not-so-favorite brands are standing beside us during the pandemic. McDonald’s released a video entitled “Still the Same” to assure customers that a burger and a side of French fries can fill us with the same joy at home. But even McDonald’s wasn’t spared the sting of COVID-19, and in closing two hundred of its restaurants—the majority of them in Walmart stores—it is conceding that some forces are greater than it is. And yet McDonald’s continues to survive in crises that it makes no real substantive or structurally based attempt to alleviate.

Nearly half a century after the Altgeld Gardens incident, the nation finds itself in a situation similar to that of the evacuees—among them the matriarch of the environmental-justice movement, community organizer Hazel Johnson, who taught a young Barack Obama about organizing—making masks and searching for leadership and guidance in the face of a health crisis, which illustrates the depths of racial inequality in the United States. And as was the case in 1974, the fast-food industry has found a way to imagine itself a first responder in troubled times. In fact, fast food and crisis have gone hand in hand at pivotal moments in the 20th century, and when each crisis passes, lessons about labor, capitalism, and race remain unabsorbed.

Fast food is in the business of providing temporary relief from a number of conditions—a sudden bout of hunger while you’re traveling on a highway, an urge to use a restroom during a protest, a need for a job right now despite the risks and the low wages, a desire for something resembling the playground or senior center unavailable in your neighborhood—and it’s long been in the business of representing itself as having the capacity to meet the challenges of crisis. This time around, perhaps the tide will turn and the people, in community and in a relentless stance of refusal of corporate offers of relief, will know that we are the ones we can count on. icon

Featured-image photograph by Lyman Gerona / Unsplash