NEW YORK -- Fast-food protests are underway in cities from New York to Oakland, with organizers expecting the biggest national walkouts yet in a demand for higher wages.
Similar protests organized by unions and community groups over the past several months have brought considerable media attention to a staple of the fast-food industry -- the so-called "McJobs" that are known for their low pay and limited prospects. But it's not clear what impact, if any, they will have on business.
In New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined about 300 to 400 workers and supporters in a march before flooding inside a McDonald's near the Empire State Building on Thursday morning. 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 awareness among some illustrates the challenge workers face. Participating workers, who are asking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize, still represent a tiny fraction of the industry. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which works out to about $15,000 a year for full-time employees.
The movement comes amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress and economists to hike the federal minimum wage. But most proposals seek a far more modest increase than the one workers are asking for, with President Barack Obama wanting to boost it to $9 an hour.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez compared the protests to the demands of demonstrators in the 1963 March on Washington, who sought a national minimum wage to give workers better living standards.
"For all too many people working minimum wage jobs, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are feeling further and further apart," said Perez, who's taking a lead role in Obama's push for a higher minimum wage.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million works 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 say the walkouts will hit more than 50 cities on Thursday, following 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.
Ryan Carter, a 29-year-old who was walking out of the McDonald's where workers demonstrated on Thursday, said he "absolutely" supported workers' demands for higher wages.
"They work harder than the billionaires in this city," he said. But Carter, who was holding a cup of the chain's coffee he bought for $1, said he didn't plan to stop his regular trips to McDonald's.
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 pay starts at minimum wage and ranges upward depending on the employee's position and experience level. The company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., said raising entry-level pay would raise overall costs, leading to higher prices on menus.
Wendy's said in statement to CNBC that it was "proud to provide a place where thousands of people, who come to us asking for a job, can enter the workface at a starting wage, gain skills and advance with us or move on to something else."
Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, did not respond to a request for comment.
"If you are someone striking for $15 an hour, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot have the same number of job opportunities. It's a direct reflection of economics of the industry," said Mike Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, which gets funding from the restaurant industry.
Workers were also expected to walk off their jobs in cities including Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Conn., Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Many targeted restaurants will likely be able to stay open, however. The strikes were announced earlier, giving managers time to adjust staffing levels.
Fast-food workers who take part in the strikes are generally protected from being fired or having employers retaliate against them, even though they are not members of unions. Federal labor law gives all workers the right to engage in "protected concerted activities" to complain about wages, working conditions or other terms of employment.
"It's always been understood that people who fall under this concerted activity umbrella are protected as long as they are protesting not only on their own behalf but on behalf of others as well," said Robert Kaiser, a St. Louis labor law attorney.