How McDonald's Became a Target for Protest

The Golden Arches continue to inspire discontent on a domestic and international level.

Protestors destroy a McDonald's in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2006 following the Danish cartoon scandal. (Mian Khursheed/AP)

On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that 130 McDonald's locations in Japan would be closed due to lagging sales amid food scandals. This is the type of story we're used to seeing about companies, a story where success or failure in a market is tethered to performance. But coverage of McDonald's in particular tends to concern a very different type of story: McDonald's as icon of capitalism.

The fast food chain celebrated its 60th birthday on Wednesday. Technically, it's a few years older, but the company's first franchise location opened 60 years ago this week in Des Plaines, Illinois, by company pioneer Ray Kroc. In Hawaii, for example, franchises offered 60-cent burgers and gave away birthday cake.

One could be forgiven for missing the revelry. Elsewhere in the country, the Fight for 15 minimum wage protests raged, forcing shut McDonald's franchises in places like Denver and Chicago and hosting a die-in outside a McDonald's in Manhattan. And while the Fight for 15 movement included home care workers, adjunct professors, Walmart staffers, and others, the central target for the protests was the Golden Arches.

Here's the tweet that is still pinned to the top of the movement's Twitter page:

There is something about McDonald's that makes it the target of continual protest—more than other fast-food franchises and more than other powerful global moneymaking entities with less-than-sterling reputations for fair pay. (Consider that one-third of bank tellers reportedly live on public assistance and yet no one staged a die-in at a Chase Bank yesterday.)

But McDonald's isn't just the focus of domestic ire for practices deemed "un-American" by opponents. Internationally, the company symbolizes something "all too American." Last week, the Washington Post reported on two Russian filmmakers who, in the spirit of nationalism, started a campaign to turn all the McDonald's restaurants in Russia into franchises called “Let’s Eat At Home.” According to the Post's account, Russian President Vladimir Putin is having his deputy prime minister review the proposal.

This episode continues a series of anti-American maneuvers in Russia that focused on the franchise. After the Russian annexation of Crimea last year, the three McDonald's franchises there were shuttered. At least one of them became a nationalist chain called Rusburger, which serves "Czar Cheeseburgers" where Big Macs once reigned.

Meanwhile, within undisputed Russia proper, authorities initiated a crackdown in late 2014 against McDonald's franchises, forcing some to close for dubious reasons and opening investigations into hundreds of others. We've come a long way from 1990, when throngs of Big Mac seekers lined up outside the McDonald's at Pushkin Square in the final moments of the Cold War. More recent headlines echo 2002, when a franchise in Santiago, Chile, was burned down on the anniversary of the coup that toppled Marxist President Salvador Allende.

Indonesia, 2003. AP

Chronicling attacks on fast-food franchises in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson note that McDonald's outlets were attacked in Russia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Spain and Italy. Everything from globalization protests to the Danish cartoon scandal have brought about attacks on the Golden Arches.

So what do we make of a franchise that is beloved, reviled, embraced, and rejected as a symbol of American industry? Even as it serves food on military bases, it also offers Kosher and Halal options in Middle Eastern markets. Even as protestors fight for $15 wages at American chains, many McDonald's workers in Denmark make $21 an hour.

In the midst of all this bad news, it's easy to forget that McDonald's also opened 35,000 stores in 119 countries. That may be a sign that somewhere in the world, someone is still Lovin' It.