Thousands of McDonald’s employees and union activists descended on the company’s headquarters near Chicago on Thursday to hold the biggest ever protest against “poverty wages” paid to most of its 400,000 employees, as the company’s board gathered for its annual shareholder meeting.

About 5,000 McDonald’s employees from across the US chanted: “We work, we sweat, put $15 in our cheque” as they marched towards the burger giant’s headquarters holding banners reading “McDonald’s: $15 and Union Rights, Not Food Stamps.”

“We’re here to tell McDonald’s and its shareholders to invest in the company and its workers instead of wealthy hedge fund managers and executives,” said Kwanza Brooks, a McDonald’s worker and mother of three from Charlotte, North Carolina, who is paid $7.25 an hour. “We’re tired of relying on food stamps to feed our own families. We need $15 and the right to form a union and we need it now.”

Ahead of the meeting McDonald’s dismissed the demonstrations as a publicity campaign by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is working to organize workers across the fast-food industry.

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