Why McDonald’s might be the most important battle in the fight for fair wages

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On Wednesday, McDonald's employees and supporters demanding an increase in pay temporarily shuttered the fast food giant's suburban-Chicago headquarters ahead of the company's shareholder meeting. The protests, organized in part by the Fight for $15 movement, represent the latest effort by service workers around the country to secure a $15 dollar-an-hour minimum wage.

Protesters—estimates range in the thousands—braved rain and wind as they marched toward McDonald's Oak Brook, Illinois, campus. Once there, they stopped street traffic, hunkering down in lightweight pup tents outside the company's main office buildings.


In response, McDonald's spokesperson Lisa McComb told Reuters, company employees were encouraged to work from home.

This is not the first time Fight for $15 protesters have set their sights on the Golden Arches; the past three years have seen the company targeted by the wage increase movement, and there's reason to believe these efforts have, in fact, helped move the needle. Sort of.

Days ahead of record-setting Fight for $15 protests in April 2015, McDonald's announced they would begin paying employees $1 above the local minimum wage at all company-owned restaurants. It's a heartening-sounding policy, but one admittedly tempered by two important factors.


The wage increase, it can be argued, was fueled less by progressive agitation than a need to stay competitive in the industry. What's more, the move only affects a fraction of actual McDonald's restaurants, the vast majority of which are franchise-owned, and therefor not bound by the new policy.

This year, however, the McDonald's protests have taken on an additional air of significance. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have used the wage-increase movement to demonstrate progressive bona fides in their respective runs for president, framing the fight for a living wage as not simply a labor issue, but an American one.


In this context, the push for McDonald's to increase worker pay and benefits assumes an additional layer of importance. Yes, there are very real, very tangible benefits that would be felt by the company's tens of thousands of employees who would suddenly be presented with a larger paycheck. But there would also be profound symbolic significance in a company so inextricably linked with both All-Americanism and shitty, high school-level paychecks adopting a widespread living wage. It would represent a change in how this country sees its workers—one which could irrevocably shift the paradigm of what it means to "flip burgers" for a living.

"This isn’t just about fast-food workers or McDonald’s workers," explained Vicki Treadwell, a Milwaukee home care worker, at this week's protests. "McWages are holding us all back."

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