Exposed: McDonald’s surveillance operation spies on employees organizing for a living wage

New reports show that McDonald’s has spied on workers “for years” in their effort to combat the Fight for $15 movement that has been struggling for a living wage for nearly a decade. According to documents leaked to Motherboard, McDonald’s hired a team of global intelligence analysts to identify and surveil workers and labor leaders (and their social networks) who organized protests, strikes and union drives.

Surveilling union activity is illegal, but the public nature of social media gives McDonald’s and other corporations a loophole to invasively track and monitor their workers. Intelligence analysts (making much more than the minimum wage) use state-of-the-art targeting software to identify workers, their friends and friends’ friends, and build a graph to show the connections between them and find the leaders of the movement. They even set up fake Facebook accounts to track and monitor organizing activity. 

According to one McDonald’s corporate insider, “The idea was to figure out their strategy, counter it, and find out where the key players are, and who they know.” An internal report identified questions such as: “What risk scenarios will manifest in 2021 and put pain on McDonald’s?” and “How is the FF$15 executing its 2020 objectives? … What new tactics and strategies are not part of the FF$15’s 2020 objectives?”

In addition to McDonald’s employees, prominent figures in the labor and social justice movements were targeted. Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and a leading advocate for a $15 an hour minimum wage, and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry both had their social media accounts monitored by McDonald’s surveillance teams.

McDonald’s workers’ fight for dignity has implications for nearly every restaurant employee. McDonald’s is the biggest restaurant in the world. The company has more than 1 million workers across 38,000 stores globally. Its profits rely on paying workers the legal minimum in wages. Even during the pandemic, workers only receive sick time if they live in one of 15 states (including Washington, D.C.) that mandates paid sick leave. 

It is no wonder that a 2014 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 40 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty. For McDonald’s workers who make much less than the $10 median restaurant wage, the poverty levels are of course higher.

Recently, McDonald’s settled a wage theft lawsuit for $29 million rather than risk going to court.

Sexual and physical harassment also are constants for McDonald’s workers. A recent poll by the Service Employees International Union found that 44 percent of workers nationwide have been “physically or verbally threatened or abused by customers” who were not wearing masks.

Publicly the company pretends to be socially and ethically responsible. CEO Christopher Kempczinski’s first address to his corporate staff told them to “simply do the right thing.” The CEO, with a net worth of $15 million, pledged “to make this company an example for the world.” But these meaningless platitudes can’t cover up the brutal exploitation the company is based on — and maintained through their invasive surveillance of their impoverished workers.

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