NEW YORK — Fast-food workers and labor organizers marched, waved signs, and chanted in cities across the country on Thursday in a push for higher wages.
Organizers say employees planned to forgo work in 100 cities, with rallies set for another 100 cities. But by late afternoon, it was unclear what the actual turnout was or how many of the participants were workers. At targeted restaurants, the disruptions seemed minimal or temporary. In Boston, more than 100 workers and protesters rallied outside the Burger King on Columbia Road with signs saying “We are Worth More.”
The protests are part of an effort that began about a year ago and is spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which has spent millions to bankroll local worker groups and organize publicity for the demonstrations. Protesters are calling for pay of $15 an hour, but the figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.
As national and international attention on economic disparities grows, advocacy groups and Democrats hope to build public support to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That comes to about $15,000 a year for full-time work.
On Thursday, crowds gathered outside restaurants in cities including Lakewood, Calif., Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C., where protesters walked into a Burger King but did not stop customers from getting food.
In Detroit, about 50 demonstrators turned out for a pre-dawn rally in front of a McDonald’s. A few employees said they were not working but a manager and other employees kept the restaurant open.
In Boston, Kyle King left his job as cashier at a Burger King on Tremont Street to join the rally on Columbia Road. He said he struggles to live on $8.15 an hour.
“Workers like myself need more money,” he said. “If they increase minimum wage, I could start paying my brother rent again.”
In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald’s at around 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another did not look up from eating and reading amid their chants of ‘‘We can’t survive on $7.25!’’
Community leaders gave speeches for about 15 minutes until police arrived and ordered protesters out of the store.
The push for higher pay in fast food faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on being able to offer low-cost meals and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were hiked.
Fast-food workers have also 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, hasput their wages in the spotlight.
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, said their restaurants create work opportunities and provide training and the ability to advance. Burger King reissued its statement on past protests, saying its restaurants have provided an entry point into the workforce for millions of Americans.
The protests are getting high-powered support from the White House. In aspeech Wednesday, President Obama mentioned fast-food and retail workers ‘‘who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty” in his call for raising the US minimum wage.
Supporters of wage increases 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 an increase in the minimum to $8.25 an hour, up from $7.25 an hour.