Published August 30. 2013 4:00AM
New York - Fast-food workers in dozens of U.S. cities walked off the job Thursday in their largest round of protests yet, saying they cannot get by on what they earn and must have higher wages.
Similar protests organized by unions and community groups over the recent months have drawn attention to fast-food "McJobs," known for low pay and limited prospects.
Thursday's effort to stage a nationwide protest by thousands of workers reached about 60 cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit, organizers said. But the turnout varied significantly, with some targeted restaurants operating relatively normally and others temporarily shutting down 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 that was targeted by protesters, 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.
Advocates for a higher minimum wage note that jobs in low-wage industries have led the economic recovery. That makes it crucial that those 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.
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 lack of public awareness illustrates the challenge workers face in building wider support. Participating workers, who are asking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize without interference from employers, still represent a tiny fraction of the industry.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25, which works out to about $15,000 a year for full-time employees.
The quest 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 Barack 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.
Organizers said walkouts were planned Thursday in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities.
At a Wendy's in New York City, about 150 people stood outside blowing whistles, beating drums and chanting, "We can't survive on $7.25." There were no customers inside.
In Detroit, the dining area of a McDonald's on the city's northwest side was shut down as workers and others protested outside.
In Raleigh, N.C., about 30 fast-food workers picketed outside a Little Caesars. Julio Wilson said he earned $9 an hour at the pizza restaurant, where he has worked for about six months. He said it's not enough to support himself and his 5-year-old daughter.
"I know I'm risking my job, but it's my right to fight for what I deserve," Wilson said.