Fast-Food Workers Arrested At Protests

'Fight for $15' events staged in cities from New York to L.A.

Carol Kopp/AOL Jobs A Philadelphia police officer arrests a protester at fast-food workers' rally Sept. 4, 2014

Protesters were arrested at demonstrations in cities across the U.S. on Thursday, as employees stepped up the pressure on America's fast-food giants to raise their wages.

Demonstrations by employees and union supporters were held outside McDonald's and other chain restaurants in as many as 150 cities. An estimated 500 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to organizers.

The workers are seeking an increase to $15 an hour, nearly double their current average salary. Restaurant work is America's lowest-paid job segment.

The action kicked off Thursday morning with the reported arrests of 19 protesters outside a McDonald's in the middle of New York City's Times Square. About 400 demonstrators chanted and waved signs, while customers streamed in and out of a giant McDonald's on West 42nd Street, according to The New York Daily News.

As the day rolled on, demonstrators were arrested in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Little Rock, Las Vegas and San Diego. Ongoing coverage and comments can be followed on Twitter at #fastfoodstrike.

Philadelphia's lunch-hour protest was a civilized affair, with about 200 protesters, union supporters and on-lookers surrounded by police gathering outside a McDonald's restaurant a block from City Hall. A Baptist minister spoke and a folksinger led the crowd in protest songs before police attempted to clear the intersection for traffic. About a dozen protesters invited arrest by refusing to move after a request by a police officer. One officer was overheard telling a protester that he sympathized with his goal, but had to do his job.

The National Council of Chain Restaurants, an industry trade group, dismissed today's protests as "choreographed activity" stage-managed by unions. "While it is common for labor unions to stage events in order to grab media attention, encouraging activities that put both restaurant workers and their customers in danger of physical harm is not only irresponsible, it's disturbing," said a statement from Rob Green, executive director. "Unions are calling it 'civil disobedience' when in reality, this choreographed activity is trespassing and it's illegal."

Hoping to turn the heat up on more low-wage employers, the movement's organizers added another service industry to the mix: Home care workers were invited to join Thursday's protests.

St. Louis is one big city that was spared protests, in light of the recent turmoil in nearby Ferguson that followed the shooting death of a young man by a police officer. Workers from St. Louis outlets reportedly traveled to events in nearby cities.

Thursday's demonstrations were the latest round in a series of protests that began almost two years ago, coinciding with a national debate over the federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour.

The group, which has been funded by the Service Employees International Union, was buoyed by a Labor Day weekend shout-out from President Barack Obama. In a speech in Milwaukee, the president noted, "All across the country right now there's a national movement going on made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity."
Carol Kopp/AOL Pastor Larry Patrick leads a prayer at Philadelphia fast-food workers' rally on Sept. 4, 2014.

In his speech, the president repeated his call for an increase in the federal minimum wage. "There's no denying a simple truth: America deserves a raise," he said. "If you work full-time, you shouldn't be living in poverty."

Vice President Joe Biden delivered a similar message at a Labor Day event in Detroit. "The American people have not walked away from what they believe they are entitled to. Just give them a chance. No handout, just give them a chance," Biden said in his speech to a union crowd.

The movement also got a shot in the arm from the National Labor Relations Board, which recently ruled that McDonald's Corp. shares responsibility for the workers who wear its uniform. Restaurant workers are employed by franchisees, not by the parent corporation. But the board ruled that both bear legal responsibility for working conditions.

An increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour has been sought by Democrats but stalled in Congress due to Republican opposition. In the absence of federal action, many state and municipal governments have moved to raise their local wages, to as high as $15 per hour in Seattle.

Opponents of a hike in the minimum wage warn that it would be a job-killer. However, a recent study indicates that 12 of the 13 states that have raised their minimum wages have recorded job growth.

Home care workers, who assist house-bound elderly and disabled clients, make a median wage of $10.10 an hour, with some paid as little as $8.03 hourly, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median pay for fast food workers is currently $8.74 per hour.

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