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Protesters return as McDonald’s holds its annual meeting

Hundreds of protesters pushing for higher fast-food wages returned to protest outside McDonald’s Corp.’s headquarters Thursday as activists attending the world’s largest hamburger chain’s annual meeting peppered executives with questions on topics ranging from marketing practices to employee compensation.

Thursday’s smaller protest near the company’s Oak Brook campus came after a Wednesday afternoon march and protest in which 138 individuals, including 101 McDonald’s workers, were arrested for trespassing on the company’s property.

Protesters began their rally before 7 a.m., and the annual meeting began on time at about 8 a.m. Protesters gathered outside voluntarily left at around 8:30 a.m., about 45 minutes before the meeting ended. Shouting, “We’ll be back,” they walked to a line of buses on Kensington Road.

At the meeting, individuals who wanted to ask questions were asked to fill out cards ahead of time including information, such as what they planned to ask about.

While the company spends “billions” on sponsorships, marketing and executive compensation, “many of your employees can barely make ends meet on poverty wages,” said Sriram Madhusoodanan, an organizer with the group Corporate Accountability International.

That group has gathered several people, including mom bloggers, to criticize McDonald’s for marketing efforts such as using the clown character Ronald McDonald and hiring basketball star LeBron James as a spokesman.

Chief Executive Don Thompson said that McDonald’s is not “predatory” or focused on marketing to children.

“We are people. We do have values at McDonald’s. We are parents,” he said.

Sally Kuzemchak, who writes the parenting blog Real Mom Nutrition, asked Thompson how he justifies marketing to children. She said that her two children paid no attention to the McDonald’s near their Ohio home until a Ronald McDonald balloon appeared on the building.

Thompson said that his children ate at McDonald’s when they were younger, and that his daughter is now a track star.

Thompson, McDonald’s CEO since July 2012, has faced a tough time including the low wage employee protests, rising food costs and slumping sales in key markets such as the United States.

A child introduced as Bob told Thompson that someday he would like to be considered for the CEO’s job.

“Bob, there are some days I’m ready to give it to you, buddy,” Thompson joked.

Thompson did point out the presence of protesters and discussed the company’s jobs as a starting point for opportunity.

“I know that we have a few extra folks outside, thank you for your patience,” Thompson told shareholders. He said the company continues to believe that it pays “fair” wages and offers opportunities for advancement and job training.

As in the past, he pointed out that many people have moved up the ladder at McDonald’s. One example he gave on Thursday was Chief Operating Officer Tim Fenton, who began as a McDonald’s crew member at a restaurant in Utica, N.Y. in 1973 and is set to retire later this year.

During the meeting, one of the people picked to ask a question was a man who said that he started as a McDonald’s employee, worked his way up and is now submitting an application to buy his first McDonald’s, a story that was met with applause from the crowd of shareholders.

One of the protesters outside, Melinda Topel, of Kansas City, Mo., said she has worked for McDonald’s “on and off” for 10 years. She was among those arrested while protesting on Wednesday.

“Cops here treated us with dignity and respect,” said Topel, who said her hands were cuffed by police with zip ties. “It was a real smooth process. I would do it again.”

“The cops were even joking,” Topel said. “They offered us water.”

Topel said that she was making $9.50 an hour in 2007, when she left McDonald’s to pursue an associate’s degree, and now makes $7.50 an hour.

“It’s almost next to impossible. We have to budget every penny. We have to rely on social services, things like food stamps,” Topel said.

The Rev. Arthur Berry Sr., from Detroit’s City Temple Seventh Day Adventist Church, was also arrested during Wednesday’s protest. He said the fine was $75.

Local coalitions that organized the effort are expected to pay the tickets for everyone arrested.

During the meeting, one speaker asked for more vegetarian options in the United States and another said he wished that the biscuits and gravy served during breakfast hours in some southern locations were offered nationwide. Thompson hinted that some new items may be added to the company’s menu without giving specific details.

Two shareholders asked whether McDonald’s would consider splitting its stock. The shares were down 5 cents at $102.51 on Thursday afternoon.

Chief Financial Officer Peter Bensen said that for now “there’s really nothing in the cards for that,” and said a split does not really increase value and would actually increase costs.

Shareholders voted in favor of the current structure in an advisory vote on the company’s executive compensation, with 93.5 percent voting in favor, based on preliminary results. Thompson earned total compensation of $9.5 million in 2013.

This year’s annual meeting was closed to the media, thought it was streamed over the Internet. The company said it decided not to invite media based on direct feedback and steadily declining media attendance. It said the decision was also made to level the playing field for reporters unable to travel to the meeting.

The push to raise fast-food and retail employees’ wages has led to protests nationwide since the movement took shape in 2012, with demonstrations from New York to Los Angeles that are organized by groups financially backed by the Service Employees International Union.

On Wednesday, hundreds of workers and activists staged a protest at the McDonald’s campus, seeking a wage increase to at least $15 per hour for employees. About 500 people clogged the entrance road to the company’s headquarters, with some singing “We shall not be moved” as police warned them they could be arrested if they did not move back.

The demonstration was peaceful. The arrested protesters presented their IDs to police and allowed themselves to be arrested and led to a bus, one-by-one, on a hot afternoon. The Oak Brook Police Department said the arrests were made for “criminal trespass to property” and that those arrested could face a fine.

Fast food workers in Chicago make about $8.25 per hour, the state’s minimum wage, protest organizers have said. Many are part-time workers without benefits who don’t have a set schedule.

Most of the protesting workers are employed by franchisees. That makes them a hard group to organize because the union would have to launch a campaign with every employer and gain the support of the majority of the workers at every location.

In Chicago, some McDonald’s workers are members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. For now, the group is educating workers on labor laws and asking them to voluntarily join the group, which is registered as a union. The workers don’t pay dues but are asked to attend meetings and participate in events.

The movement began as a walkout in New York in 2012 and evolved into one-day protests that have targeted retailers and other fast food operators, including Burger King and Wendy’s.

Since then, U.S. President Barack Obama has pushed Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from the current $7.25.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, and 38 states have considered minimum wage bills during the 2014 session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On Tuesday, Speaker Michael Madigan ushered through the House a bill that would allow voters to weigh in on whether Illinois should raise the minimum wage to $10. The proposal, which would not have the force of law, still needs Senate approval.

As he campaigns for re-election, Gov. Pat Quinn has requested a minimum wage hike from the current $8.25 per hour. Democrats, however, are unlikely to have the votes this spring to pass such an increase.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday announced the creation of a committee that will discuss the pros and cons of a minimum wage hike. The committee could allow Emanuel to put off doing something at City Hall until the results of the statewide referendum are known, then let state lawmakers change the minimum wage if voters back the idea.

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