McDonald's, America's most famous fast food chain, has been at the center of controversy before, but its shareholder meetings have turned into a political battleground in the last few years. Its most recent shareholder meeting, held Thursday morning, included much back-and-forth between shareholders arguing in favor of — and against — minimum wage increases.
McDonald's has been one of the most high-profile targets in the Fight for $15, but has contested that it is not responsible for how franchisees pay employees. The National Labor Relations Board has argued otherwise, saying McDonald's is a joint employer and is therefore jointly liable (along with franchisees) for labor practices at all of its stores. A trial to determine whether McDonald's is liable for the actions of its franchisees (such as firing or punishing workers who participate in Fight for $15 protests) could pave the way for unionization and wage negotiations with workers.
"McDonald's... bankrolls the National Restaurant Association — the largest anti-worker lobby in the country."
In the shareholder meeting Thursday, Sriram Madhusoodanan, an activist with Corporate Accountability International, urged McDonald's "to asses the alignment of its values with its political activities." Madhusoodanan argued that the company "bankrolls the National Restaurant Association — the largest anti-worker lobby in the country" and "spends billions, all while miring workers in poverty." He added that the company uses teachers to sell junk food to trusting students with its McTeachers Nights.
"Communities across the country are mobilizing," said Madhusoodanan. "Actions speak louder than words. It's time for a real turnaround plan — one that ends the exploitation of children and workers."
Justin Danhof, General Counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, also attended the meeting, presenting a proposal on behalf of National Center Chairman Amy Ridenour, a McDonald's shareholder. Danhof fired back at Madhusoodanan, saying that McDonald's shouldn't support "individuals and organizations that would tax and regulate McDonald's out of existence."
The chain has made slight changes in response to wage protests, increasing wages about $1 last year. The raise only applied to a small portion of its workers at its company-owned stores, though. Approximately 90 percent of McDonald's stores are franchise-owned, so the bulk of its employees were unaffected by the change.
"Look — the barbarians are back at the gate demanding more. They saw it as a sign of weakness."
Danhof argued that the company "crowed about increasing wages" at a shareholder meeting last year, but the increase did nothing to deter protesters — who he likened, oddly, to Bernie Sanders.
"Look — the barbarians are back at the gate demanding more. They saw it as a sign of weakness which they could exploit," said Danhof, adding that the protesters have "less economic understanding than a socialist senator from Vermont."
The company shut down its Chicago headquarters yesterday, in anticipation of hundreds of Fight for $15 protesters who gathered in advance of today's meeting.
Recently McDonald's has looked to alternatives to raising wages — namely, using technology to replace the work of humans. One-time McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi recently suggested that instituting a $15 minimum wage could fuel a robot takeover, arguing, "it's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who's inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries."
During the Thursday shareholder meeting, CEO Steve Easterbrook was asked specifically whether the company planned to replace workers with kiosks and machines.
"Ultimately, we're in the service business."
Saying he didn't view self-ordering kiosks as "being a risk to job elimination," Easterbrook said the company is simply "adapting" to current trends. "It's not actually meant as a labor replacement, we can just re-apportion that labor into other roles... so customers can have a better interpersonal experience."
"Ultimately, we're in the service business," said Easterbrook. "Frankly, we will always have an important human element because that's what brings a restaurant to life. If we can automate certain non-value-added elements, we will certainly do that."
Though none of the shareholder proposals garnered enough votes to pass at the Thursday meeting, a measure on 2015 executive compensation (CEO Steve Easterbrook reportedly made close to $8 million in 2015) passed overwhelmingly.