Demonstrators near a McDonald's restaurant outside of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum as part of a nationwide protest of fast food workers December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
In Washington, dozens of people carried signs and marched while singing "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. it's no fun, to survive, on low low low low pay."
In New York, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums as they marched into a McDonald's chanting "We can't survive on $7.25." And in Detroit, more than 100 workers were picketing outside two McDonald's restaurants and sang "hey hey, ho ho, $7.40 has got to go!"
One-day labor walkouts were planned at fast-food restaurants in 100 cities Thursday, with protests in scores more cities and towns across the nation. Organizers, actually a loose-knit group of labor advocates mostly led by the Service Employees International Union, are pressing for an increase in the national minimum wage, higher wages in the industry -- and the right to unionize without management reprisals.
The advocacy groups are hoping to build public support for raising the federal minimum wage of $7.25, or about $15,000 a year for full-time work. A common battle cry has been "Fight for 15" -- a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
Tyeisha Batts, 27, protesting in New York, said she has been working at Burger King forr about seven months and earns $7.25 an hour. She said she hasn't been retaliated against but that the manager warned that employees who didn't arrive on time Thursday would be turned away for their shifts.
"My boss took me off the schedule because she knows I'm participating," Batts said.
Arun Gupta, an advocate for income equality and founding editor of the Occupy Wall Street Journal, says he is encouraged by the nationwide effort but isn't expecting it to result in major changes.
"It's more a show for the media than something that will impact the bottom line of these employers," Gupta said.
The timing is good. In recent days, Pope Francis and President Obama have spoken out against growing income inequality.
"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" the pope asked. Obama, who has expressed support for a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, echoed the pope's concerns in a speech Wednesday. Obama noted that the American economy had doubled in size since 1979, but most of that growth has been restricted to a "fortunate few."
Despite the growing attention on economic disparities, the pushback is strong. The fast-food industry is an especially price-sensitive business - and claims it would be difficult to significantly increase wages.
"Fifteen dollars an hour is not a reasonable approach," said Justin Winslow, the Michigan Restaurant Association's vice president of government affairs. In addition, the industry counters that many fast-food workers are younger workers seeking part-time work, not necessarily a lifetime career in the industry. But those who do have opportunities to become managers and even franchise owners.
The National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, said most those protesting were union workers and that "relatively few" workers have participated in past actions. It called the demonstrations a "campaign engineered by national labor groups."
Fast-food workers have historically been seen as difficult to unionize, given the industry's high turnover rates. But the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers in health care, janitorial and other industries, has been providing considerable organizational and financial support to the push for higher pay over the past year.
Supporters of wage hikes have been more successful at the state and local level. California, Connecticut and Rhode Island raised their minimum wages this year. Last month, voters in New Jersey approved a hike in the minimum to $8.25 an hour, up from $7.25 an hour and the city of SeaTac, Wash., approved a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
Labor Secretary Tom Perez weighed in on the side of the protesters this week in his blog: "To reward work, to grow the middle class and strengthen the economy, to give millions of Americans the respect they deserve -- it's time to raise the minimum wage."
By John Bacon