Fast-food wage protesters demonstrate outside McDonald’s headquarters

05/21/2014 7:00 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

About 2,000 workers, labor activists and advocates protested Wednesday outside McDonald’s Chicago area headquarters in a demonstration that called attention to the low pay of fast-food workers.

More than 100 fast-food workers from the Kansas City area were among the demonstrators, and some of them were arrested for civil disobedience.

The actions were planned in connection with McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting Thursday, when the company also is expected to deal with issues concerning its executive pay packages and marketing to children and minors.

Early Wednesday, organizers changed the location of their demonstration after learning that McDonald’s closed the building where they had planned their actions. The corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., has several buildings on a sprawling campus.

Near McDonald’s Hamburger University site, dozens of police officers in riot gear warned protesters that they would be arrested if they didn’t disperse. Demonstrators lined up to cross a barricade, after which they were arrested and their wrists tied in the plastic restraints.

Among those arrested was Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has more than 2 million members.

The Rev. Donna Simon of Kansas City’s St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church said by phone late Wednesday afternoon that she was standing in line to be arrested.

“We’re sitting and standing in the street,” Simon said. “We’re singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ The police are respectful. Our folks are respectful. It’s just an amazing scene.”

Organizers estimated that 150 people trained in civil disobedience had planned to be arrested.

The protesters from the Kansas City area rode charter buses to Oak Brook. Simon said they included workers from “all the major fast-food companies.”

Melinda Topel, a 43-year-old McDonald’s store employee who makes $7.50 an hour, said: “I’m here fighting for $15 and a union so that my path does not become my children’s future.”

Topel, who said she receives government assistance to buy food and is struggling to afford school supplies and shoes for her two kids at home, added: “We deserve a livable wage.”

Another McDonald’s employee from Kansas City, 20-year-old Marie Sanders, said by phone from a police station that police began by arresting some of the “elderly protesters because it was extremely hot” and then she was one of the first young workers arrested.

“They warned us that if we continued to march and chant that we’d be trespassing and we’d be arrested,” Sanders said. “We didn’t leave. We sat down and prayed.”

She said she was patted down, handcuffed behind her back and loaded on a bus with other protesters.

Workers from other fast-food chains, such as Burger King and Taco Bell, also were at the event. But McDonald’s is a frequent target for critics because of its size and high profile.

In a statement, the company said it respects “everyone’s right to peacefully protest.” Later, spokeswoman Heidi Barker called the protest “very much a staged event” and said most of those who turned out weren’t McDonald’s workers.

The fast-food workers were supported by union activists. The Service Employees union in particular has been providing financial and organizational support to the fast-food protests, which began in late 2012 in New York City and spread to other cities and countries, calling for “$15 an hour and a union.”

At least three major protest days have been held in Kansas City, beginning last summer.

Turnout for the protests has varied, but they have nevertheless struck a chord at a time when the gap between the country’s rich and poor has widened and many middle-income manufacturing jobs have vanished.

Executive pay packages are coming under greater scrutiny too, with shareholders last week voting against Chipotle Mexican Grill’s compensation of $25.1 million and $24.4 million for its co-CEOs. That “say on pay” vote was advisory and nonbinding but could make the chain rethink its practices going forward.

McDonald’s, which is far bigger than Chipotle, gave CEO Don Thompson a pay package worth $9.5 million last year.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Some states, including Missouri, require higher pay than the national minimum.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that fast-food workers in America make an average of $9.08 an hour, which would be about $18,880 a year if they work full time.

The Associated Press, Bloomberg and The Kansas City Star’s Diane Stafford contributed to this report.

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