The tree-lined drive leading up to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Ill., was blocked by police in riot masks on Wednesday. The officers held a line against some 2,000 people who showed up at the campus to protest the company’s low wages ahead of yesterday’s annual shareholder meeting.
The phalanx was guarding buildings that stood empty that day; McDonald’s told a number of employees to stay home, saying it expected traffic problems. During the march, more than 100 people were arrested for trespassing, including Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry.
This isn't the first time the company's shareholder meeting has been the scene of activist drama. A year ago, Hannah Roberts, just nine years old, grilled CEO Don Thompson about the ways his company markets to kids. But the nascent fast-food labor movement, which started with a one-day strike in New York City at the end of 2012, was still gaining momentum last May. The movement that has coalesced around a call to raise base wages to $15 an hour and give workers the right to organize has gone from 400 workers from several chains walking off the job in Detroit on May 10, 2013—then the largest such action in U.S. history—to 2,000 fast-food workers, labor activists, and civil rights leaders marching on the center of the Golden Arches’ business world.
As shareholders gathered to talk about McDonald’s business, which is beginning to show cracks, the meeting provided a focal point for the chain’s critics to bring their complaints to the company's corporate doorstep. In addition to labor activists, the Change to Win Investment Group forced shareholders to hold a vote on Thompson’s $9.5 million pay package; Food and Water Watch and the Pesticide Action Network delivered a petition demanding that the company address the pesticide drift issues around the Minnesota farms it contracts to grow french-fry potatoes; and the more than 3,000 McDonald’s franchise owners and operators were also able to air their grievances.
“I know we have people outside,” Thompson said in a speech yesterday. He was referencing the labor protesters, but the comment could apply to journalists as well—the press was blocked from the event. Despite the company’s recent admission in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that the labor movement “can adversely affect us,” Thompson stuck to the old line regarding pay, saying, “We continue to believe that we pay fair and competitive wages.”
Shareholders widely approved Thompson’s pay package, cementing another example of the most disproportionate executive-to-worker pay ratio in any American industry. The average hourly pay of the people who make and serve the burgers that are the lifeblood of fast food is $9.09, or $18,200 per year. A recent study from the public policy group Demos showed that executives in accommodation and food service earn $543 for every $1 paid to workers.
Watching so many people standing up for so many causes was exhilarating for activists. “We’re really excited to see everything that’s happening at the shareholder meeting,” said Lex Horan, who worked on the Pesticide Action Network’s Toxic Taters campaign.
Although the health of rural Minnesotans may seem to have little to do with the wages of McDonald’s employees, those involved in the push for higher pay might learn something from the ongoing push for pesticide reform. The corporation promised to address the issue five years ago, but Horan says, “McDonald’s hasn’t publicly shared any tangible results that have been produced since their 2009 commitment.”
Although McDonald’s insists its pay is fair, the company has pushed to give “sustainability,” along with healthier menu items, a larger role in its brand. The pollock used to make its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, and the company is working to source “sustainable beef.” That may be a nice-sounding term, but the draft principles and criteria that were released in March didn't include any mention of non-therapeutic antibiotics and the myriad problems the drugs present.
“In the midst of so much attention to so many issues, including serving healthy food and worker issues, McDonald’s is really turning to sustainability to change its image in the public eye,” Horan said. The PAN petition, and the campaign in Minnesota, are intended to hold the chain accountable for the promises it made in 2009—promises that haven’t been fulfilled even as the Golden Arches have been washed green.
The fast-food labor movement hasn’t won any concession yet, but as it continues to build, the workers fighting for $15 will inevitably gain ground on their corporate employers. Then the work will turn from making demands to holding their employers accountable—and that can be an even more difficult battle.