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.”

Many of the protesters arrived on Wednesday and held a rally outside McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, a suburb about 20 miles west of Chicago. On stage, Adriana Alvarez, one of 101 McDonald’s workers arrested for protesting at the meeting last year, said: “We’re here to make it clear to McDonald’s that we want $15 and union rights. We don’t need food stamps, and we definitely don’t want buybacks [in which the company buys its own shares to benefit shareholders].”

Alvarez, who has worked at McDonald’s for five years, said she is paid so little that she needs food stamps and Medicaid to care for her three-year-old son, Manny.

The company, which has taken the highly unusual step of banning the media from the meeting, on Wednesday closed many of its corporate offices and its on-site restaurant and removed “Golden Arches” flags from its properties.

The protesters will on Thursday deliver a petition with more than 1m signatures calling on the McDonald’s board to raise pay and respect union rights.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said: “It’s time for McDonald’s to respect the workers on the frontlines as much as they have respected shareholders by putting $30bn in their pockets over the last 10 years.”

As well as pressure on the streets outside, McDonald’s will face tough questions from its shareholders, who are angry at the company’s failure to keep up with the changing tastes of consumers.

Shareholders will also demand changes at the top of the company, after analysis by the Guardian revealed the the extent of board’s tight-knit culture. According to an analysis of public records, the fast-food giant, which controls more than 35,000 restaurants in 119 countries, is run by a coterie of long-serving insiders whose relationships raise “very big red flags”, according to critics.

Gary Hewitt, head of corporate governance research at responsible investment firm Sustainalytics, on Thursday added to the growing concern over McDonald’s insular management.

“Zero board members have direct experience either as executive or director within the restaurant or mass retail industries,” Hewitt said. “More than two-thirds of board members have served 10 years. Not only does this potentially affect the independence of the overall board and its committees, it also highlights the lack of a refreshment policy. Nationality diversity is also a weak spot, with the board being dominated by directors from the US, in contrast with the company’s broad international revenues. In light of the considerable competitive and innovation challenges facing the company, fresher and varied perspectives at the board level would help support the new CEO’s innovation agenda.”

While the company controls restaurants in 119 countries, only two of McDonald’s board members are non-US nationals.

This article was written by Rupert Neate in Oak Brook, Illinois, for on Thursday 21st May 2015 12.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010