On Thursday, more than 50 protesters were arrested at McDonald's corporate headquarters in Chicago.
The event was the latest in a recent wave of protests held by workers in the fast-food industry. Since February, tens of thousands of low-wage and fast-food workers have gone on strike in hundreds of cities across the country, calling for a $15 minimum wage. In September, McDonald's workers from 10 cities walked out of work to bring attention to alleged sexual harassment at the chain.
Now, fast-food workers are protesting for the right to unionize. For decades, the fast-food industry has resisted unionizing efforts. Research suggests that a majority of fast-food workers are on some form of public assistance. Protesters calling for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize have demonstrated throughout the week at McDonald's locations in cities including Milwaukee; Detroit; and San Jose, California.
Among those arrested on Thursday in Chicago were striking fast-food workers, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Mary Kay Henry. The Chicago Police told the Chicago Sun-Times that 52 people were arrested for trespassing on private property, while the organizing group coordinating the event, Fight for $15, says that 54 were arrested.
Fight for $15 estimates that roughly 1,000 protesters were present, though these numbers are unconfirmed.
"Some politicians will do whatever it takes to block workers from coming together in a union. That's unacceptable, and it's a big reason why paychecks across the country are flat while corporate profits are fatter than ever," said Schakowsky, in a statement shared with CNBC Make It. "I'm proud to support workers in the fight for $15 who are striking and protesting all across the country today for union rights. Unions are the solution to un-rigging the economy and strengthening communities here in Illinois and nationwide."
Adriana Alvarez, a McDonald's employee from Cicero, Illinois, walked out of work in order to attend the protest.
"We're on strike today to demand the union that fast-food workers need. We need unions for all low wage and service sector workers," she said in a statement shared with CNBC by the Fight for $15. "And I have a message for any politicians listening: Stand with us in our fight for union rights, don't back these corporations. Because on election day, we're showing up to the polls and casting our votes for elect leaders who support working people in Illinois."
In response to the protest, a McDonald's spokesperson sent the following statement, adding that roughly 95 percent of McDonald's locations are franchises. (Many states have laws protecting parent companies from grievances aimed at franchises.)
"Our commitment to the communities we serve includes providing opportunities for restaurant employees to succeed at McDonald's and beyond with world-class training and education programs to help them build the skills needed for today's workforce. This year alone, we have tripled tuition assistance for restaurant employees by allocating $150 million over five years to our Archways to Opportunity education program to provide upfront college tuition assistance, earn a high school diploma, and access free education advising services. These benefits show McDonald's and its independent franchisees' commitment to providing jobs that fit around the lives of restaurant employees so they may pursue their education and career ambitions."
The events follow Tuesday's news that Amazon will be raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. "We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead," said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement. "We're excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us."
The news garnered an enthusiastic response from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who introduced the BEZOS Act in September, a bill to tax corporations for the funds their low-wage workers receive in government assistance. In response to Amazon's announced wage hike, Sanders said, "What Mr. Bezos has done today is not only enormously important for Amazon's hundreds of thousands of employees, it could well be, and I think it will be, a shot heard around the world."
"McDonald's is not a poor company. Last year, it made over $5.1 billion in profits and rewarded wealthy shareholders with over $7.7 billion in dividends and stock buybacks," Sanders wrote in the letter, which was directed to McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook and shared on social media. "If McDonald's can afford to give its shareholders $7.7 billion, it can afford to pay all of its workers $15 an hour."
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