Striking McDonald’s Corp. workers in the union-backed “Fight For $15” movement are demanding that the company stop seeking advice on sexual harassment policy from a law firm that’s currently defending the Weinstein Co.
“Fight For $15,” an initiative by the Service Employees International Union to raise pay and unionize the fast food industry, plans to mount a day-long strike Tuesday against McDonald’s to raise awareness of alleged sexual harassment at some of its stores. They’re also demanding that McDonald’s dump the workplace training arm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a Chicago-based law firm that defends companies against workplace claims.
“If McDonald’s is serious about meeting worker demands, they’d start by firing Seyfarth,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, said in an emailed statement.
The National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Law Center have alleged that workers at McDonald’s stores “face rampant sexual harassment.” McDonald’s workers backed by such groups have filed more than a dozen sexual harassment complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the past two years. Allegations in the filings include groping, inappropriate comments from supervisors, and retaliation for speaking up.
McDonald’s declined to immediately comment. In May, following the most recent EEOC complaints, a company spokeswoman said “there is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in our workplace. McDonald’s Corp. takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and are confident our independent franchisees who own and operate approximately 90 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants will do the same.”
Last week, the fast-food chain announced that it was bringing in experts to help “evolve” its sexual harassment policy, including representatives from an anti-sexual violence group and Seyfarth Shaw’s training unit. Over the past decade, Seyfarth has represented companies facing sexual harassment claims including Nike Retail Services, Domino’s Pizza and United Continental Holdings. Seyfarth is currently defending the Weinstein Co. against a proposed racketeering class action lawsuit alleging the company was complicit in film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.
Law firms may end up focusing more on preventing litigation than preventing harassment
Seyfarth, an 850-lawyer global law firm, didn’t provide comment in response to several inquiries. In May, Gerald Maatman, the Seyfarth partner representing Weinstein Co., told Bloomberg Law that he prefers to have men on the jury in a sexual harassment case because some of them might be more skeptical. He also said he prefers older jurors because they can “have a more measured idea of how businesses work.”
Fight For 15 said such comments should disqualify Seyfarth from providing McDonald’s with advice on preventing sexual harassment. Maatman declined to comment when contacted Monday.
Management-side lawyer Roger King, an attorney for HR Policy Association, a corporate interest group, said law firms such as Seyfarth are well-placed to provide such guidance because they “have the opportunity to see the positives and negatives of corporate cultures and the strengths and weaknesses of policies and procedures.”
Most companies primarily look to management-side law firms for guidance on developing their sexual harassment policies, said Jenny Yang, who chaired the EEOC under President Barack Obama and is now a fellow at the Open Society Foundation and an adviser to a company that consults for companies and non-profits.
However, such law firms may end up focusing more on preventing litigation than preventing harassment, she said. Training in such an environment can have the effect of discouraging workers who were harassed from coming forward. “Part of the reason that we’re in the place that we are today in terms of seeing systemic harassment problems in many workplaces,” she said, “is because there has been more of a one-sided perspective and a focus on liability avoidance.”
Sharyn Tejani, director of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, said “employers should ensure that new efforts are not seen as simply designed to protect the employer’s interests. Employee buy-in for new efforts is critical; one way to do that is to make sure employees have confidence in any outside party who is being brought in as an expert to help remedy the situation.”
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