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Protesters turn up the heat on McDonald's

OAK BROOK, Ill. - Protesters were arrested after crossing a barricade outside McDonald's (MCD) headquarters on Wednesday, as hundreds demonstrated to call attention to the low pay earned by fast-food workers.

The actions come ahead of the company's annual shareholders meeting Thursday, where it is also expected to be confronted on issues including its executive pay packages and marketing to children and minority communities.

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Early Wednesday, organizers changed the location of their demonstration after learning that McDonald's closed the building where they had planned their actions and told employees there to work from home. The corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., has several buildings on a sprawling campus.

Down the street from Hamburger University, dozens of police officers in riot gear warned protesters to disperse. Dozens of people dressed in McDonald's uniforms essentially volunteered to be arrested by crossing a barricade. Organizers said about 100 McDonald's workers who traveled from around the country planned to be arrested, along with another three dozen community leaders and supporters.

Among those arrested was Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has more than 2 million members.

The union 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, with shareholders last week voting against Chipotle Mexican Grill's (CMG) compensation of $25.1 million and $24.4 million for its co-CEOs.

That "say-on-pay" vote was advisory and nonbinding, but could make the chain rethink its practices going forward.

McDonald's, which is far bigger than Chipotle, gave CEO Don Thompson a pay package worth $9.5 million last year.

President Barack Obama has also been pushing to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which translates to about $15,000 a year, assuming a person 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're offered.

Earlier this month, in what organizers called the "biggest strike in fast food history," workers in 150 U.S. cities and in countries from Japan to New Zealand held protests to ask for higher wages. It's a continuation of strikes that gained attention last year over the minimum-wage earnings for many fast-food workers.

The low-wages of employers such as McDonald's and Burger King (BKW) were cited recently by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as an economic problem facing the U.S. By 2018, Vermont will offer the highest minimum wage of any state in the country, based on legislation that's due to be signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat.

Shareholder meetings such as McDonald's 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.

Companies vary in how they run annual meetings. This year, McDonald's decided to not allow members of the media to attend in person. As in the past, however, the event is being webcast.

Although other fast-food chains such as Burger King and Taco Bell (YUM) 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" and said most of those who turned out weren't McDonald's workers.

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