McDonald’s Two-Faced Talk
by Anna Lappé for Al Jazeera America
Last month, Chicago hosted two seemingly unrelated meetings. At the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show you could check out workshops such as “Pickle Your Fancy” and “You Bacon Me Crazy,” while mingling with some of the other 63,000 attendees. Though the annual trade show is the NRA’s most public moment, the group works year-round behind the scenes, influencing politicians and legislation to shape what we eat, how we eat it and how restaurant workers — including those employed by McDonald’s — are treated.
As trade show participants, including those from some of the biggest restaurant chains in the country, were closing up their display cases, McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting was just getting started. It would appear to be no coincidence that the trade association’s meeting was timed to coincide with the Golden Arches confab of shareholders — McDonald’s is one of the trade association’s generous corporate sponsors.
But in recent years, McDonald’s annual meeting has become a venue not just for corporate officials opining on official sales reports, but also for public-interest advocates taking the fast-food chain to task for contradictions between what the company says it values and what it does in practice.
McDonald’s NRA membership makes its recent professed concern for its workers ring hollow. The trade group has actively lobbied for years against improving conditions for restaurant workers, including better worker wages and benefits. As one of the NRA’s largest dues-paying members, McDonald’s supports such lobbying and benefits from its success.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA lobbies on “virtually every issue affecting the restaurant industry.” In 2013 alone, the NRA, a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, spent a total of $71 million, including on lobbying and campaign contributions.
In 2014, it spent $3.9 million on contributions to candidates and lobbying 89 separate bills, according to its disclosures. Some of these efforts included longstanding lobbying against health care reform and increases in the minimum wage. The NRA specifically lobbied against policy proposals such as the “Forty Hours is Full-Time Act,” which would give those who work 30 hours a week the same benefits as those who work 40 — especially important today as business owners reduce hours per week to minimize their responsibilities for providing benefits such as health care. (Michele Simon documented more of these lobbying efforts in an Al Jazeera America column last year.)
A prominent member of the NRA, McDonald’s has been working with the trade group on many of these policy fights. Advocates at its meeting, including those from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurants Opportunities Center, pointed out how the company is undermining worker welfare. The corporation’s “Standards of Business Conduct” report pledges to treat its employees with “fairness, respect and dignity”(PDF) and to “pay fair, competitive wages.” But as a member of the NRA, McDonald’s has helped to fund one of the biggest lobbying efforts to obstruct a national minimum wage increase in decades. Through the International Franchise Association, it’s also suing the city of Seattle for moving to increase the minimum wage to $15 there, claiming franchises, such as McDonald’s operations, are unfairly classified as “large” employers when they should be considered “small” businesses.
Advocates at the meeting pointed to this lobbying activity and to McDonald’s own shortfalls in improving worker wages and benefits. While the corporation was proud to announce a wage hike earlier this year for its workers, only a fraction actually received it: The hike covered just company-owned restaurants, where only about 10 percent of all U.S.-based employees work; the rest work for franchisees. (A projected 1,300 cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s and other major fast-food companies are convening this weekend in Detroit to strategize about such lackluster moves.)
Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey also spoke of “the growing concerns from people across the globe regarding the devastating impact McDonald’s is having on workers, our food system and the health of our children.” And representatives from Corporate Accountability International, with whom I work, spoke out against the practices and lobbying efforts, especially with the NRA, that undermine the very values the corporation says it holds dear.
The Standards of Business Conduct report, subtitled “the Promise of the Golden Arches,” quotes McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc describing the company as “ethical, truthful and dependable” and committed to its “people.” But with its longstanding relationship with the NRA ensuring it has been a key force in limiting the compensation for low-wage workers — very much its people — it doesn’t appear that McDonald’s is going to make good on those promises any time soon.
Photo: Annette Bernhardt