Two separate protest groups lined the sidewalk outside of McDonald’s new West Loop headquarters at 11 AM Thursday—the day of the fast-food giant’s annual shareholders’ meeting.
As a handful of Chicago cops and a cluster of curious pedestrians watched from behind temporary metal barriers placed in front of the 6,000-square-foot flagship restaurant and corporate offices on Randolph Street, ten people representing the grassroots Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund demanded that the company use antibiotics-free beef.
Meanwhile, 15 members of various animal rights groups and volunteers (one dressed as a creepy Ronald McDonald and another in a diseased chicken costume) rallied to complain about the fast-food chain’s suppliers’ treatment of its poultry. At noon they held a faux ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a Golden Arches-shaped installation of yellow balloons covered in fake blood to christen the massive nine-story building at 110 N. Carpenter as the “Headquarters of Cruelty.”
“We’re giving McDonald’s another chance to respond to the issue of animal cruelty,” said Clarke Snell, the Chicago grassroots director of the nonprofit the Humane League. “They haven’t been willing to talk to us yet, so that’s why we’re here.”
Thursday’s action marked the fourth day in a row that groups have voiced their discontent with McDonald’s at its home, which opened in April. Earlier in the week, nearly 150 members of the Fight for $15—a union-backed movement campaigning to raise the pay of minimum-wage workers—chanted slogans like “McDonald’s, McDonald’s, you can’t hide / We can see your greedy side”—and paraded up and down Restaurant Row.
It’s perhaps a “be careful what you wish for” moment for the hamburger empire.
Founder Ray Kroc began operating the company out of the LaSalle-Wacker Building in downtown Chicago in 1955 but retreated to the suburbs in 1971 during the era of white flight. Now, following corporate America’s charge back into rapidly gentrifying major cities, McDonald’s has moved its base of operations to the former Harpo Studios site in a once-gritty industrial neighborhood increasingly taken over by upscale restaurants, luxury condos, and shiny new developments.
It’s part of McDonald’s plan to “build a modern, progressive burger company.” But in a progressive city where protests of all sorts are not uncommon, the new HQ has quickly become a lightning rod for public demonstrations.
Granted, McDonald’s protests are not a new story. Micky D’s is America’s most iconic and ubiquitous fast-food chain, and its name serves as shorthand for the low-wage service industry (sometimes even called “McJobs”). The megacorporation’s huge footprint means it’s long been a major target for protests that call out its questionable labor practices, spotty record on the environment, and reliance on suppliers animal rights groups say treat their livestock cruelly. It’s the “Donald Trump of corporations,” says the Fight for $15.
For years, activist groups have regularly picketed outside several of the most high-profile McDonald’s in the company’s hometown and the leafy 86-acre campus in Oak Brook. But that was located in a sleepy and isolated area of the suburbs near a shopping mall and a golf course. Only a limited audience of McDonald’s employees and people in passing cars were likely to see the protesters in action.
“You go to Oak Brook and so much of is McDonald’s property and it’s so far away from everything that you don’t really have an impact as far as people seeing you,” says Ollie Davidson, a corporate campaigns coordinator with the animal advocacy nonprofit Animal Equality.
Now that the company has moved into its new digs in Chicago, in an area with plenty of foot traffic, it’s a much more attractive target, activists say.
“Here [in the West Loop] it’s perfect, because it’s an iconic place with Oprah being here so long, and there are businesspeople everywhere that we can talk to about our causes. It gives us an opportunity to get our message heard better,” adds Davidson, who says he’s campaigned in front of McDonald’s HQ once or twice a week for the past month and a half.
The Humane League first launched a major public campaign against McDonald’s in March. They bought dozens of ads on benches, buildings, and billboards and in newspapers in Chicago to attempt to pressure McDonald’s into “doing the right thing” by implementing higher animal-welfare standards for its chicken supply chain.
The group purposely planned Thursday’s colorful demonstration to coincide with McDonald’s annual shareholders’ meeting. The two-hour action included mobile billboards parked on Randolph Street, an aerial banner flying above the West Loop with a McDonald’s logo that read “Animal cruelty is bad business,” and volunteers passing out informational cards to passers-by. The Humane League’s Sophia Deluz sometimes had trouble keeping up with the hundreds of people strolling past or to McDonald’s on their lunch hour as she implored them to boycott the company.
“This building stands out and it definitely has an impact,” says the Humane League’s Snell. “We’ve got more visibility here, and there are more people walking by who we talk to and give literature to who say, “This is wrong. I’m not going to eat here now.'”
A McDonald’s spokesperson did not respond specifically to an inquiry about the increase in protests at its new headquarters. In a statement, the Chicago Police Department said, “CPD personnel were dispatched to a peaceful public gathering there today and will respond in the future as necessary.”