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May 23, 2019

With protesters at the gates, McDonald's talks up its success story

mcdonald's middletown Photo | Flickr via JJBers McDonald's restaurant at 914 Washington St. in Middletown.

McDonald's annual shareholder meeting on Thursday was short and controlled, and made little mention of the criticism the chain has faced this week.

Business continued as usual inside the meeting room at a hotel in Dallas, even as tension mounted elsewhere. Fight for $15, a workers advocacy group, organized a series of protests across several US cities. As part of the movement, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president, pressured the company to raise its minimum wage during a digital town hall Thursday. And workers rights advocates in Durham, North Carolina — joined by presidential candidate Julian Castro — called for better protections for McDonald's employees.

Other presidential candidates made statements in support of workers. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand penned a column in support of the workers, writing "I stand in solidarity with McDonald's workers ... I'm ready to fight with you." New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio led protesters in a chant.

In response, McDonald's said that it "does not control the wages franchisees pay in their own restaurants," adding that "the average starting wage at corporate-owned restaurants exceeds $10 per hour, and we believe the average starting wage offered by those independent business owners is likely similar." The company also noted that it recognizes the rights under the law of individual employees to choose to join — or choose not to join —- labor organizations." McDonald's also said recently that it will no longer fight minimum wage hikes.

Activists also set up outside the Dallas hotel to share materials with passersby.

For just over 30 minutes, McDonald's leadership spoke at the meeting about the company's business achievements in the past year. CEO Steve Easterbrook called attention to McDonald's efforts to remodel stores, streamline, and increase digital capabilities. He also nodded to popular menu items.

The "momentum we're seeing in our business today is contagious," he said. "And we're only getting started."

Just two audience members, Alexa Kaczmarski and Sister Susan Smith Makos, spoke.

Kaczmarski, speaking on behalf of the activist shareholder group Corporate Accountability, presented a proposal that would let shareholders act by written consent. That resolution failed to pass, but garnered 42% of the vote.

Makos spoke on behalf of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility about the importance of increasing transparency into McDonald's efforts to remove antibiotics from its supply chain. ICCR withdrew a proposal on the topic before it reached McDonald's proxy statement because of a new company policy that addressed most of the concerns.

Kaczmarski also mentioned recent sexual harassment claims against the company.

Fight for $15, with support from the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, announced on Tuesday that 25 new sexual harassment charges and lawsuits have been filed against McDonald's.

According to a Fight for $15 and a Union press release, workers allege that they've been groped, propositioned for sex and become the target of lewd comments, among other things, in both corporate and franchise locations. Workers, including at least one as young as 16, also claim that they faced retaliation when they made managers aware of the alleged abuse.

McDonald's employees protested this week to raise awareness for the charges. They were joined by Lakshmi, a "Top Chef" host who shared last year that she was raped as a teenager.

Easterbrook penned a letter to Lakshmi detailing the efforts the company has made over the past year to ensure "a harassment and bias-free workplace."

Easterbrook said that McDonald's started working with the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN last year to help clarify its sexual harassment policies and reporting methods. It also conducted manager and operator trainings last fall, opened a hotline and more. "We are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected," Easterbrook wrote.

Thursday's meeting struck Kaczmarski, who has attended the event twice before, as both shorter and more sparsely attended than usual. She told CNN Business that in prior years the meetings were closer to an hour long. McDonald's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the length and attendance of this year's meeting compared to earlier events.

The business of shareholder meetings — passing or rejecting resolutions, often including new board director nominations — is speedy. But some companies make real events out of their meetings. Starbucks' annual meeting, for example, usually has a musical guest and lasts three or four hours.

Kaczmarski said she interpreted the brevity and location as an attempt "to keep this meeting out of the public eye." This year, the event was held at an airport hotel in Dallas, rather than the company's home base of Chicago. Activists saw that as an effort to discourage attendance.

McDonald's said in a statement ahead of the meeting that the location "provides us with a unique opportunity to interact more closely with local management and broadens the opportunity for other shareholders to attend the meeting in person." In the room, executives thanked Dallas for a warm welcome and complimented local store and employees, calling Dallas an important market for the company.

Leadership also addressed two questions from the crowd, which had been written down and were read out by Robert Gibbs, the company's chief communications officer. One was about whether McDonald's will add meat substitutes like Impossible or Beyond Meat patties to its menu (the company is interested in the space, but isn't sharing any plans at this point, it said). The other was about chicken welfare. A McDonald's representative said that it made a commitment in 2017 to improve the living conditions of its chickens, and that it is doing so with technology and by improving housing and lighting for the birds.

Some activists were disappointed by the meeting. Michael Jones,'s managing director of campaigns, attended the meeting to ask about the company's plans to add more vegan options on the menu; a Change.Org petition asking for more meatless options has over 215,000 signatures.

"McDonald's is really missing an opportunity," by failing to make a commitment to add meat substitutes to the menu, he said.

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