NEW YORK -- Fast-food workers protested Thursday in U.S. cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit, with organizers expecting the biggest national walkouts yet in a demand for higher wages.
The nationwide day of demonstrations came after similar actions organized by unions and community groups over the past several months. Workers are calling for the right to unionize without interference from employers and for pay of $15 an hour. That's more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year for full-time employees.
Thursday's walkouts and protests reached about 60 cities, organizers said. But the turnout varied significantly. Some targeted restaurants were temporarily unable to do business because they had too few employees, and others seemingly operated normally.
Ryan Carter, a 29-year-old who bought a $1 cup of coffee at a New York McDonald's where protesters gathered, said he "absolutely" supported the demand for higher wages.
"They work harder than the billionaires in this city," he said. But Carter said he didn't plan to stop his regular trips to McDonald's.
Jobs in low-wage industries have led the economic recovery. Advocates for a higher minimum wage say that makes it crucial they pay enough for workers who support families.
The restaurant industry says it already operates on thin margins and insists sharply higher wages would lead to steeper prices for customers and fewer opportunities for job seekers.
The drive for better pay comes as the White House, some members of Congress and economists seek to raise the federal minimum wage. But most proposals are for a more modest increase, with U.S. President Barack Obama suggesting $9 an hour.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than two million workers in health care, janitorial and other industries, has been providing financial support and training for local organizers in the fast-food strikes around the country.
Walkouts were also planned Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Memphis, Tennessee, Milwaukee, Seattle, St. Louis and other cities.
The latest protests follow a series of strikes that began last November in New York City. The biggest effort so far was over the summer when, organizers say, about 2,200 people staged one-day demonstrations in seven cities.
McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. say they don't make decisions about pay for the independent franchisees that operate most of their U.S. restaurants. At restaurants it owns, McDonald's said any move to raise entry-level pay would raise overall costs and lead to higher menu prices.
The company said it provides professional development for interested employees and the protests don't give an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's.
"We respect our employees' rights to voice their opinions. Employees who participate in these activities and return to work are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts as usual," McDonald's said in an emailed statement.
Even though they're not part of unions, fast-food workers who take part in strikes are generally protected from retaliation by employers. Federal labour law gives all workers the right to engage in "protected concerted activities" to complain about wages, working conditions or other terms of employment.
-- The Associated Press