Protesters rally for higher U.S. fast-food wages, union rights

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters took to the streets across the U.S. on Tuesday to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights for fast food workers, a campaign intended to attract support from national political candidates ahead of the 2016 elections.

Fast-food workers and their supporters join a nationwide protest for higher wages and union rights outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California, United States, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Organizers said thousands of low-wage workers walked off their jobs in some 270 cities across the country to take part in the “Fight for $15” campaign.

A rally by several hundred activists outside a Milwaukee arena where the televised Republican presidential debate was taking place briefly became tense when one protester burned an American flag. The crowd dispersed not long after police moved in to extinguish the small fire.

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in New York, where they were joined by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and some 500 marched through downtown Los Angeles. Events were also held in Detroit, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

Leaders said that workers from McDonald’s Corp, Wendys Co, Restaurant Brands International Inc’s Burger King, Yum Brands Inc’s KFC and other restaurants would take part.

But Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said that only “a handful” of its employees took part in protests she called “staged events,” and only three walked off their jobs.

“To date since these days of action have begun, this is the smallest actual McDonald’s employee participation that we’re aware of,” McComb said. McDonald’s is the world’s biggest restaurant chain and a high-profile target of the marches.

In a move apparently timed to show solidarity with the movement, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, hiked the minimum hourly wage to $15 for city and state government workers, respectively. The increases will be phased in over several years.

The protests were aimed in part at gaining political support for a minimum hourly wage of $15 and union rights as income inequality looms as an issue in the November 2016 presidential election.

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“The money I bring home can barely take care of my rent,” said Alvin Major, a 50-year-old KFC worker who was among about 200 protesters who blocked traffic in Brooklyn.

Brigette Perez, who makes $11 an hour working at a Del Taco restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, said she struggles to support her four children on the paycheck she receives.

“It’s really hard for me and for (my kids) to see me just leave out the door, trying to make ends meet. And then we’re on a budget, because we have to go paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

The minimum wage for fast-food workers will rise to $15 by 2018 in New York City and statewide by 2021. Many U.S. cities and municipalities have a higher base rate than the federal hourly minimum of $7.25.

The Fight for $15 campaign began in 2012 and the Service Employees International Union is a major backer. Last December the group staged similar protests in some 200 cities.

Among Democratic presidential candidates, front-runner Hillary Clinton, who backs a federal minimum of $12 an hour, and Martin O’Malley tweeted support for the protests and strikes.

Another Democratic presidential candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, told about 250 mostly black and Hispanic protesters in Washington that U.S. workers deserved a living wage.

About 100 protesters at a Chicago McDonald’s blocked the drive-through lanes during rush hour, chanting, “We work! We sweat! Put 15 on my check!”

Industry lobby groups contend the proposed pay raises would be unsustainable and cause them to cut jobs.

Michael Mabry, the chief operating officer of Texas-based Mooyah Burgers, Fries and Shakes, said base pay of $15 would reduce entry-level jobs. Restaurants also could cut staff and thus drive away customers, he said.

“There are unintended consequences when you make a blanket statement of $15 an hour,” Mabry said.

Reporting By Laila Kearney in New York, Ian Simpson and Lacey Johnson in Washington, Emmett Berg in Oakland, Justin Madden in Chicago and Phoenix Tso and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Ian Simpson and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Trott, Andrew Hay, Bernard Orr and Lisa Shumaker