McDonald’s headquarters is a perfect symbol of American class division

“Up-down” is a term frequently used to describe the social dynamics of period costume dramas like HBO’s new series Golden age. It is shorthand for the vertical architecture of the class divide between the Victorian era aristocracy and their servants. The former were aloft in their sumptuous mansions while their servants, servants, drivers, cooks and housekeepers dwelt in subterranean quarters. Literally, the wealthy were above the working class under the same roof.

Today, service workers don’t frequent the aristocracy so much – they’re summoned with the chimes of smartphone apps rather than the bells of butlers. But the “high-low” arrangements of yesteryear are not totally extinct. At McDonald’s Chicago headquarters, there is a clear altitudinal divide between the professional executive class at the top and the front-line workers who serve McDonald’s products on the ground floor.

In 2018, the fast food giant moved its base of operations from a leafy eighty-six acre campus in suburban Oak Brook to a 500,000 square foot complex inside a newly constructed nine-story office building in Chicago’s West Loop, a once-gritty industrial neighborhood that has now been taken over by high-end restaurants, luxury condos and shiny new developments. The downtown move to the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios was part of McDonald’s plan to “build a modern, progressive burger business,” a confusing phrase that’s code for attracting well-educated city dwellers to help sell more Big Macs.

At McDonald’s headquarters, there is no Ronald McDonald-inspired aesthetic. The interior is sleek, spacious, and full of mid-century style furniture, with minimalist light fixtures hanging overhead — like you’re in an airport terminal.

Take the elevator far enough and you reach a kind of adult Playplace. There’s a fitness center and a cash bar offering happy hours on Thursday nights. This bar was where former CEO Steve Easterbrook would have partied with colleagues and tried to seduce women. Easterbrook was fired in 2019 for his secret affairs with coworkers and sending them unsolicited nude photos, but walked away with $100 million in compensation — enough to buy around 25 million Happy Meals. (He was eventually forced to return the money.)

During the working day, company employees have a choice of workspace: individual desks, communal tables, or “meeting rooms,” as well as personal lockers and private phone rooms. Need fresh air? There are four outdoor spaces, equipped with Wi-Fi, including a rooftop garden with stunning views over the city skyline. The garden even has three beehives and produces honey for the tea offered in the office cafes.

In addition to these amenities, company employees receive three weeks of paid vacation, health care benefits, an eight-week paid sabbatical after a decade of service, and Friday afternoons off in summer, to, for example, avoid the long queue for the $19. gourmet burgers on the street in By horse.

Last summer, these facilities sat unused due to fears of COVID-19. Concerns over the Delta variant delayed the reopening of the head office until October – and even now office workers are allowed two days of work from home.

There’s a different set of rules for those working on the first floor, a 6,000-square-foot flagship restaurant. This “McDonald’s experience of the future” has an updated aesthetic – a translucent red-tinted glass door opens to let you in, for example. But it operates like the rest of today’s low-wage service industry.

Chicago headquarters cooks and cashiers make $15 an hour, but that’s due to the city’s minimum wage law, not corporate generosity. Among the more than 900,000 people employed at McDonald’s restaurants nationwide, the average hourly wage for a crew member is about $9.89, according to But even at $15 an hour, the base earns significantly less than the $63,000 average for head office workers, and a fraction of the $18 million that current CEO Chris Kempczinski earn annually (nearly two thousand times more than restaurant employees earn, according to Business Intern).

In 2015, McDonalds began granting up to five days of paid leave to its restaurant workers after they have been with the company for a year. But five years later, about 517,000 McDonald’s employees had no paid sick leave, the New York Times reported, due to a loophole: About 93% of the company’s 38,000 restaurants are owned and operated by independent franchisees, who can set their own benefits. Likewise, maternity leave for most working women is unpaid – which is why my nephew’s girlfriend went back to work at a McDonald’s in Illinois a week and a half after having a baby. She couldn’t afford not to go back to work.

As their corporate colleagues navigated their way safely through the pandemic, restaurant workers had to turn up every day and bear the brunt of pandemic risk — often without the proper safety precautions. McDonald’s was one of the fast food chains that racked up thousands of OSHA Complaints due to a lack of masks and an inability to social distance.

In Oakland, a McDonald’s franchise was forced to set up shop a trial claiming managers gave employees dog diapers and coffee filters to use as face masks. Chicago has also become a hub for worker complaints over COVID precautions, with a judge issuing a injunction against several store owners after a class action lawsuit was filed ordering them to adopt new security measures. A to study from the University of California, San Francisco, reported a 60% increase in death from line cooks; they had the highest mortality risk during the pandemic, even more so than healthcare workers.

There is even a separate vaccine split among workers depending on whether they worked upstairs and downstairs from McDonald’s headquarters. Company employees who returned to the West Loop this fall were fully vaccinated, while Kempczinski tried to fight Joe Biden’s proposed federal vaccination mandate for restaurant workers, saying “we’re not willing to do that kind of verification” on testing and tracking COVID infections.

Kempczinski says he wants to make working at McDonald’s restaurants more fun, but it’s to help avoid unionization, the kind that’s increasingly happening at rival restaurant companies like Starbucks. The CEO recently told the the wall street journal that McDonald’s workers don’t need unions – a sentiment reflected in the company intensive espionage on its workers as part of its efforts to destroy nascent organizing campaigns.

The Fight for $15 labor organization has long called McDonald’s the “Donald Trump of the companies”, and the corporate headquarters is a clear example. The iconic golden arches affixed to the $400 million building symbolize the good life of the company’s small army of marketing and HR managers, equipped with laptops, who roam the upper floors. Those below, like the rest of us in this second golden age, get an inflated share of exploitation.

James V. Hayes