Down the street from Hamburger University, dozens of police officers in riot gear warned protesters to disperse. People dressed in McDonald's uniforms essentially volunteered to be arrested by peacefully crossing a barricade or remaining on the property after being asked to leave. Organizers said about 100 McDonald's workers who traveled from around the country were arrested, along with community leaders and supporters.
Among them was Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, who said in a statement released after her arrest that she wanted McDonald's workers to know her union members stood with them.
The SEIU has been providing financial and organizational support to the fast-food protests, which began in late 2012 in New York City and have been spreading to other cities and countries.
While turnout for the protests has varied, they've nevertheless struck a chord at a time when the gap between the country's rich and poor has widened. Executive pay packages are coming under greater scrutiny too, and shareholders last week rebuked Chipotle Mexican Grill's compensation of $25.1 million and $24.4 million for its co-CEOs in a non-binding, advisory vote.
McDonald's Corp., which is far bigger than Chipotle, gave CEO Don Thompson a pay package worth $9.5 million last year.
Outside its headquarters, 25-year-old McDonald's worker Jessica Davis said she wasn't worried about being arrested.
"I'm worried about not being able to pay my bills," said Davis, who earns about $9 an hour at a Chicago restaurant. She said she supports two young children and relies on public assistance and help from her family to get by.
A spokesman for the Oak Brook police department, George Peterson, said the arrested protesters were being processed and would be released, with court dates being assigned later. He estimated the crowd of demonstrators at up to 1,500.
Although some municipalities have higher rates, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and translates to about $15,000 a year for a person who works 40 hours a week. But most fast-food workers are given far less time on the clock, in part because restaurant owners want to avoid paying overtime and limit the number of employees who receive benefits, if they are offered.
Protesters also plan to demonstrate outside the company's annual meeting Thursday morning.
Shareholder meetings offer the public a rare chance to confront top executives at major publicly traded companies. While ordinary investors typically don't attend, the meetings are frequented by public pension funds, activist groups and religious organizations seeking to change corporate practices.
Although other fast-food chains such as Burger King and Taco Bell use many of the same practices, 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 Sa Shekhem called the protest "very much a staged event."