Seila Cardoso swapped her red uniform for a red and white protest sign and joined the picket line outside her employer, the KFC outlet in Dorchester, risking her job to be part of a nationwide movement to raise the pay of fast food workers.
A high school senior who immigrated from Cape Verde, Cardoso was comforted by the scores of sympathizers who joined the picket line in front of the KFC on Columbia Road.
“We’re all looking for a better life,” Cardoso said. “I don’t see a better life here. I’m trying to save for college, but at $8 an hour, what am I going to do with that?”
Thousands of fast food workers such as Cardoso were joined by sympathizers at rallies in some 50 cities across the country Thursday, the biggest coordinated effort in a campaign to bring the wages of behind-the-counter employees up to $15 an hour, and the right to unionize.
Starting at 6 a.m., the event lasted almost 12 hours, with short strikes taking place outside fast-food restaurants throughout the city, in Roslindale and Dorchester as well as downtown Boston. The action culminated with a rally Thursday afternoon on Boston Common that drew hundreds of spectators and appearances by Senator Edward J. Markey and several candidates for mayor.
In Washington, the top labor official in the Obama administration said the protesters had a good cause.
“For all too many people working minimum wage jobs, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are feeling further and further apart,’’ said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The Obama administration has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. In Massachusetts the minimum wage is $8 an hour.
Leroy Thorpe, who has worked at the McDonald’s on Tremont Street in downtown Boston for five months, said he didn’t go to work Thursday to fight both for higher pay and more hours. Currently, Thorpe said, he is scheduled to work only eight to 10 hours in a given week.
“I’m taking my strike,” the 18-year-old Thorpe said. “The way the job pays is not right.”
But the fast food strikers did not always find a sympathetic reception from their customers. In Roslindale, Stephanie Joacine said she was heckled by protesters when she took her 4-year-old grandson into the Popeyes on American Legion Highway.
“I understand their anger, but to me, you have to be supportive of each other,” Joacine said. “It’s their right as an American citizen to protest, but they also have to be understanding of people who want to support the business, and people who want to keep working.”
Though many of the workers seemed hopeful that their protests would spark change, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, a trade association, released a statement from its executive director Rob Greene about Thursday’s events, dismissing the strikes as a move for media attention.
“A few scattered protests organized by outside labor groups hardly amounts to a nationwide ‘strike’ or movement,” Greene said. “The vast majority of fast-food workers across the country are committed to their jobs and realize that the restaurant industry provides an important first step into the world of work, as well as long-term career opportunities.”
Protesters also gathered in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and many other cities. National organizers said the employee walkouts hit more than 50 cities. One Detroit McDonald’s was briefly forced to shut down after its employees walked out and protesters crowded the restaurant, according to local media reports.
Other customers said they were supportive of the workers’ cause, though that did not keep them from patronizing their fast food chain.
“I had no idea this was going on,” said Kelly Bailey, as she left KFC with her family on Thursday. “I do think that raising their minimum wage to $15 would be a good thing.”
Burger King employee Kyle King, who was featured on the front page of the Globe Tuesday in an article about the strike, said he was sent home when he showed up for work Wednesday at the Tremont Street restaurant.
“They said, your services are not needed for today, “ King said.
King, 45, said he has been told not to come to work before, such as during snowstorms, but the managers always call him beforehand. Showing up and being sent home was a first, said King, who thinks the action was a retaliation for speaking to the media.
The manager at his Burger King declined to comment.
King is scheduled to work Friday afternoon, and, like others who participated in the strike, expects to be escorted back to the Burger King by strike organizers and local politicians.