138 arrested at McDonald's HQ protest

Demonstrators clash with police during a protest at the McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest at the McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, May 21, 2014.

One week after fast food workers around the globe protested their employers, McDonald's was the target of new demonstrations.

On Wednesday, the day before the McDonald's annual shareholders meeting, more than 1,000 workers and activists converged on the corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. to demand higher wages and the right to form a union. Oak Brook Police arrested 138 protesting McDonald's employees over the course of the day, according to the local police department.

"Right now we have a bunch of angry workers protesting," said Cherri Delesline, a McDonald's worker from South Carolina, during Wednesday's protest. An employee of the company for 10 years, she said she has never received a raise and struggles to support four children on an hourly income of $7.35 per hour.

"I just feel like the way McDonald's makes sure their family is taken care of, why can't we make sure our families are taken care of?" she said.

George Peterson, an officer in the Oak Brook police force, estimated that somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 protesters were present at Wednesday's protests; organizers put the number closer to 2,000. About 200 police officers were present on the campus, where they arrested the 138 workers for trespassing on McDonald's corporate campus.

"This is the largest protest that I've been involved with, and I'm in my 17th year here," Peterson said. 

Protests resumed early Thursday morning, ahead of the shareholders meeting. Organizers reported that about 800 workers and sympathizers marched at the meeting, although Oak Brook police pegged the number at closer to 400.

McDonald's is not the lowest-paying fast food chain in the United States—the sandwich chain Subway is—but a few other factors make the company a particularly ripe target for labor protests.

For one thing, there's the place McDonald's occupies in the popular imagination as an emblematic low-wage employer, hence the derogatory term "McJobs" used for poorly compensated work. And McDonald's still leads the fast food industry in number of U.S. employees by a significant margin, according to the National Employment Law Center. Much like Walmart, by far the largest retailer in the U.S., McDonald's can sway an entire industry through changes in its business model.

Then there's the fact that the McDonald's profit margins have softened over the past year. The company has tried to retool and boost sales in a number of ways—everything from getting a new mascot to experimenting with new menu items—but it still hasn't found a way back on top, and that leaves it vulnerable to economic pressure.

The fast food worker movement has been exerting that pressure through nationwide strikes and other labor disruption tactics such as wage theft lawsuits.

Although the company has not offered substantive concessions to the movement thus far, it has begun to soften its rhetoric as the strikers gain in force and influence. When workers around the world protested against the fast food industry last week, McDonald's quietly removed a statement blaming "[o]utside groups" for labor protests and replaced it with one affirming "the right of employees to choose whether or not they want to unionize."

McDonald's spokesperson Lisa McComb downplayed Thursday's protest as "a staged event in which organizers bused in people from other areas," in an email to msnbc. "A miniscule number of McDonald’s employees have participated in these events," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Cherri Delesline as Cherri Delefline. The article also said that organizers estimated 1,000 protesters showed up at the Thursday rally, when in fact that was only their prediction in advance of the rally. After the protest, they said about 800 people had attended.