The town that said, 'no, we don't want fries, a Big Mac or a McDonald's'

By Greg Ansley

Inflatable kangaroos add to the protest outside the McDonald's headquarters in Chicago.
Inflatable kangaroos add to the protest outside the McDonald's headquarters in Chicago.

The Tecoma shrub is a tough customer. So is the town named for it, a village of 2000-plus souls nestled in the Dandenong Ranges just out of Melbourne, surrounded by rainforest that runs into protected parklands and national parks.

Today, four Tecoma burghers will arrive at the doors of global food giant McDonald's Chicago headquarters with a petition of more than 94,000 signatures in their hands and never back down in their hearts.

With just A$40,000 ($45,510) raised from small donations, they are taking on the world's biggest fast food chain, with annual revenue of more that US$27 billion ($32.8 billion).

McDonald's wants to build a restaurant and 24-hour drive-through in Tecoma. The town has overwhelmingly rejected it in a battle that has now reached the Victorian Supreme Court and bought the giant's full legal wrath on eight of the leading protesters.

The David and Goliath struggle has caught the world's attention, covered by major news organisations such as CNN and McDonald's major home-town newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.

"Kudos to them for fighting," local McDonald's customer Diane Tolbert told the Sun-Times. Added fellow customer Renee Ward: "I think it's great they're not just rolling over."

In a letter to McDonald's obtained by crikey.com, prominent American corporate social responsibility expert Paul Rogers has warned that global attention could cost the chain millions of dollars in brand damage.

Today, the four Tecomans are expected to be escorted by a mob of journalists as they try to front McDonald's chief executive Don Thompson. The group had earlier been told by the company to mail the petition to it.

"I said 'no, we haven't come halfway around the world to just mail it'," protester Garry Muratore told news.com from Chicago.

Tecoma is not the first town to take on McDonald's. Locals have previously seen off outlets in the Sydney suburbs of Fairlight and Newtown, the Blue Mountains, and Prince Alfred Hospital.

But this is the chain's roughest ride.

A record 1170 written objections were lodged against the McDonald's planning application. More than 600 opponents turned up to hear the Shire of Yarra Ranges reject it.

McDonald's fought back, convincing the Civil and Administrative Tribunal that the objections were "irrelevant". When the shire was overruled protesters maintained a community garden on the proposed site until they were evicted by police.

Protest group Burger Off has since won a sympathetic hearing from the state government, attracted thousands to rallies, and won the support of the Dandenong's mystical inhabitants: 200 gnomes carrying warnings of "Gnomeageddon" lined up on the steps of the McDonald's Melbourne headquarters.

When the bulldozers moved in to clear the site police had to clear picket lines and clear a sit-in by protesters on the roof of an old dairy slated for demolition.

Unions pulled their members from the job. McDonald's hired a non-union company to do the job.

McDonald's dismissed the protesters, saying it had received emails of support from locals.

A "yes to Tecoma McDonald's" site on Facebook has attracted 3678 likes, in response to a survey of every house in the town that showed more than 88 per cent opposition to the planned outlet.

The chain launched action against the "Tacoma eight", winning an interim injunction excluding protesters from areas around the site and restricting what they could say on social media.

Prominent law firm Maurice Blackburn donated its services free to protesters, saying that peaceful protest is fundamental to civil rights and democracy.

A decision on a permanent injunction will be handed down in the Supreme Court tomorrow. McDonald's has dropped a claim for damages against the eight but will still seek costs.

- NZ Herald

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