As McDonald's workers protesting their low pay circled outside, the company's shareholders overwhelmingly endorsed an executive salary plan that awarded CEO Don Thompson a total $9.5 million last year.
A crowd of protesters including McDonald's counter workers, clergy and activists gathered on McDonald's corporate campus near Chicago as the fast-food giant held its annual shareholders meeting.
Inside the meeting, one of the shareholders' first decisions was to approve the company's method of calculating executive salaries. The measure was approved by an overwhelming vote of 93.5 percent in favor.
On Wednesday, police arrested 138 people as the protests began. The Chicago Daily Herald reported that they were later released and told to show up for a court date.
Hundreds of protesters, some in their restaurant uniforms, marched through the corporate campus in Oak Brook, Illinois, a day before a protest scheduled to coincide with the company's annual shareholders meeting.
Workers and activists from more than three dozen cities were expected to show up to escalate their campaign for a pay increase to $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation.
The protest was moved to an intersection within sight of the company's famed Hamburger University after the company shut down the headquarters building that was to have been the site of the demonstration. The company told corporate employees to work from home for the day to avoid the protests "and related traffic congestion."
Only last week, the group Fast Food Forward staged a global protest against McDonald's and its rival fast-food chains, with walk-outs at restaurants in two dozen U.S. cities, backed up by events at other fast-food outlets around the world.
The activist group is financed by the Service Employees International Union.
The fast-food industry is among the nation's lowest-paying employers. Median pay for cooks and counter workers is $9.08 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That adds up to about $18,800 a year, at full time with no vacation.
Moreover, the fast-food industry in general has one of the most extreme pay gaps between the top and bottom rungs of any American business segment.
In 2012, there was a pay ratio of more than 1,200 to 1 between a company's CEO and its workers in the fast food industry, according to a new study by the liberal-leaning think tank Demos. That is the worst of any industry in the survey.
The average salary for the CEO of a fast food company was $23.8 million in 2013. McDonald's CEO Don Thompson was paid $9.5 million last year.
According to the survey, CEO pay has quadrupled in the industry since 2000, while the average worker has gotten a raise of 0.3 percent in real dollar terms.
This has not been a good week for McDonald's. Earlier, the company announced a 1.7 percent decline in U.S. sales for the previous quarter. The company blamed the drop in customer traffic on "challenging industry dynamics and severe winter weather." Net income for the quarter fell five percent.
The protest adds heat to a shareholders meeting that was already expected to be lively. Franchisees are annoyed at headquarters, too, though their concerns center on a menu expansion that is making their businesses tougher to run.
The protesters hope to pressure stockholders, but they are more concerned with raising public support.
A new Nielsen survey shows McDonalds at number 43 in a ranking of the public reputation among American consumers of 60 familiar brand names. The company's score was 67.02, a "fair" grade in the poll.