NEW YORK – Thousands of fast-food workers and their supporters beat drums, blew whistles and chanted slogans Thursday on picket lines in dozens of U.S. cities, marking the largest protest yet in their quest 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, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, organizers said. But the turnout varied significantly, with some targeted restaurants seemingly operating normally and others temporarily unable to do business because they had too few employees.
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 that the jobs pay enough for workers who support families.
The restaurant industry says it already operates on thin margins and insists that 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 President Obama suggesting $9 an hour.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 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 Atlanta, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis and other cities, organizers said.
In New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined about 300 to 400 workers and supporters Thursday in a march before the group flooded into a McDonald’s near the Empire State Building.
Shortly after the demonstration, however, the restaurant seemed to be operating normally, and a few customers said they hadn’t heard of the movement. The same was true at a McDonald’s a few blocks away.
The lack of public awareness illustrates the challenge workers face in building wider support. Workers participating in the strikes still represent a tiny fraction of the industry. And the industry is still known for its high turnover rates and relatively young workers.
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 about 2,200 of the country’s millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike 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 the majority of their U.S. restaurants. At restaurants that McDonald’s owns, the company said, any move to raise entry-level pay would raise overall costs and lead to higher menu prices.
It said that McDonald’s provides professional development for interested employees and that 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,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Wendy’s said in statement that it was “proud to provide a place where thousands of people, who come to us asking for a job, can enter the workforce at a starting wage, gain skills and advance with us or move on to something else.”