It started with a brief walkout at a few restaurants in New York City back in November 2012, but on Thursday the campaign against low pay at America's fast food restaurants morphed into a global push.
By 9 a.m., the organizing group FastFoodGlobal.org reported that demonstrators were outside two McDonalds outlets in New York City and one in Boston. Claims that stores in several cities had to shut down for lack of personnel were disputed by management.
Hours ago, young workers in the Philippines staged a singing and dancing flash mob inside a downtown Manila McDonalds during the morning rush hour. Their choice of music was the song "Let It Go" from Frozen.
When the news from abroad started coming in, workers at a Seattle McDonalds walked out in solidarity.
A McDonalds restaurant in Mumbai, where workers are represented by a union, was shut down by protesters despite a threat of arrest, according to the organizing group FastFoodGlobal. Action was reported in Switzerland, Japan and South Korea.
Fast-food workers are expected to walk off their jobs in 150 cities from Oakland to Orlando. The protests will be a first for fast-food workers in Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia and Sacramento.
The events are intended to publicize the employees' demand for a $15-an-hour wage. The median pay nationwide for fast-food restaurant workers is $8.69 an hour.
Rev. Cheri Kroon of Flatbush Reformed Church in Brooklyn was present at a demonstration in New York City's Herald Square. "My church is surrounded by fast food establishments. Stand on that corner and throw a rock, you'll hit a fast food restaurant," she told AOL Jobs. "I think churches need to say no when it comes to an industry that treats their employees as disposable, and this is an industry that just throws away its workers. People who work a job full-time should not have to come to my soup kitchen."
Organized by a group called Fast Food Forward, the walk-outs are expected to hit only two or three restaurants in each city, all of them big name brands like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC.
In an unusual twist, events in support of the U.S. protests are planned in 30 nations around the world, from Ireland to Morocco to Panama, where American fast-food restaurants have become a familiar sight.
The cooperative effort was organized by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations, a federation that is composed of 396 trade unions in 126 countries.
The global events were expected to include a teach-in at a McDonald's corporate headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, and flash-mobs inside five restaurants the Philippines. A day later, Italian fast-food workers plan a national strike at fast-food restaurants in Rome, Milan and Venice.
Because of the time difference, the Auckland event has already occurred. Fast-food employees there have union representation and better working conditions than most. An organizer there said New Zealand workers just wanted to show support for their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who has been a prominent participant in the debate over pay inequality, is among the active supporters of the effort. He contributed a video in which he makes the case for higher pay for fast-food workers, and a higher minimum wage for all workers.
An opinion page article in The Detroit News dismisses the entire effort as a charade, charging that it is "nothing more than Potemkin Village protests led by national labor unions," and is "part of a larger corporate smear campaign against the fast-food industry, stage-managed from the top down."
The commentary notes that the campaign has been funded by the Service Employees International Union.
But as Kroon explained, the demonstrations go beyond the issue of worker pay to encompass alleged criminal actions committed by fast food restaurants against their employees. "I've testified before the city council about the fact that many fast food workers, their paychecks bounce, which is illegal," she said. "If you go to cash checking places in many parts of Brooklyn, they'll have a sign in the window that says, for instance, we do not accept checks from Wendy's on Fulton Street. And so now you have a worker who has to go and find someplace else to cash their check."
The fast-food workers' campaign comes in the midst of a national debate over the minimum wage. President Barack Obama is pushing for an increase to $10.10 an hour for the minimum, from the current $7.25. A number of states have increased their own minimum wage rates in 2014.
Additional reporting by Mack Gelber