Community activists and union leaders in Chicago are demanding McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski sit down with Black and brown workers and "address systemic racism" at the fast-food company in response to his reported text message they say is "ignorant, racist and unacceptable."
In an open letter signed by a dozen groups last week, Kempczinski was given a Wednesday deadline to meet with employees and community leaders in Chicago. The text message was part of his exchange with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April, a day after the fatal shooting of a 7-year-old Black girl, Jaslyn Adams, while in a McDonald's drive-thru with her father in the city's West Side. A month earlier, the city was reeling from the fatal shooting by police of Adam Toledo, 13, in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Little Village.
Kempczinski was texting with Lightfoot to thank her for visiting the company's Chicago-based global headquarters and wrote the recent shootings were "tragic," adding, "with both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can't say. Even harder to fix."
Lightfoot responded, "Thanks, Chris. Great to see you in person," also calling the events a "terrible tragedy."
The text exchange gained traction last week after activists obtained it through a public records request and shared it on social media. Among the critics was Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a member of the City Council's Hispanic Caucus.
Kempczinski has apologized repeatedly in the wake of the text's public release, CNBC reported.
"Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong, and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families," he said in a message to employees last week. "This is a lesson that I will carry with me."
He met with corporate employees Monday at the company's headquarters and online to discuss the text, and had also held listening sessions, including with elected franchisee leadership, CNBC reported.
McDonald's declined to comment Tuesday about the meeting or the letter by community groups and unions.
Lightfoot's office said in a statement that "families do everything they can — moms, dads, grandparents — to love and support their children, and tragedies can still happen. Victim shaming has no place in this conversation."
Baltazar Enriquez, the president of the Little Village Community Council, a nonprofit organization that signed onto the letter to Kempczinski, said he wants the CEO to publicly support policies that benefit all front-line employees, particularly those who are earning minimum wage and seeking to unionize.
But if Kempczinski fails to meet with workers, Enriquez said, he will push for boycotts and protests. Little Village has three McDonald's locations, he added.
"If he wants to get personal, we're going to get personal," Enriquez said. "We will shut down this McDonald's."
Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which advocates for police accountability, said Kempczinski's text is emblematic of a "level of insensitivity that has been going on for a long time."
"McDonald's is a multibillion-dollar corporation," he said. "They sell a lot of hamburgers in the Black and brown communities and employ a lot of people in the Black and brown communities. So for him to come and make a racist statement is unacceptable. And it was a racist statement — we know the difference between an insult and a compliment."
McDonald's has faced backlash in recent years over employee complaints of sexual harassment at restaurants and racism. In 2020, two Black executives filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment under the company's former chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, who was forced out in November 2019 over a relationship with an employee. Kempczinski replaced Easterbrook.
In addition, Byron Allen, a Black media mogul in Los Angeles, took out full-page advertisements in major newspapers in recent days accusing Kempczinski of fostering a "toxic racist culture" at McDonald's and calling on its board of directors to remove him. Two companies owned by Allen filed a lawsuit this year accusing McDonald's of discriminating against Black-owned media companies.
McDonald's has disputed the allegations in the various lawsuits.
Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which has supported McDonald's restaurant workers who have gone on strike for a $15 per hour minimum wage, agreed with Allen's ad. In a statement to NBC News, Henry said that Kempczinski should be removed "as one step in the many needed to address the systemic racism workers have decried for years."
The union is also sponsoring a new ad highlighting the controversy over Kempczinski's text and urging him to "meet with his workers and the Chicago community."
McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain, has been one of several major American companies to put diversity at the forefront following months of racial justice protests last year. In February, the company announced it would tie 15 percent of executives' bonuses to meeting certain targets, including for diversity and inclusion. The move also came after some Black franchisees sued McDonald's, accusing the company of treating white owners more favorably and that franchises in low-income neighborhoods were not as profitable and more difficult to operate.
The majority of McDonald's locations — about 95 percent — are franchise-owned.
McDonald's has denied the allegations, and a federal judge dismissed one such lawsuit in June.
In a memo to employees earlier this year, Kempczinski acknowledged that customers, franchisees and shareholders are holding McDonald's to a high standard.
"We cannot be complacent in our pursuit to better ourselves and our communities," he wrote. "Few brands in the world have our size and reach."
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