U.S. fast-food workers arrested in protests for wage hike

86 arrested in 150 cities

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — U.S. fast-food workers staged protests in some 150 cities on Thursday in a fight for higher pay, and organizers said dozens were arrested from Manhattan's Times Square to Las Vegas.

About 400 protesters clogged Times Square during morning rush hour in the latest of ongoing actions aimed at raising their wage to $15 an hour (all dollars US).

They hoisted placards reading "Stick together for $15 and union rights," and some held a sit-in at a McDonald's restaurant, prompting 19 arrests for disorderly conduct.

Sit-ins were held in several more cities, and a total of 86 arrests were reported among protesters in Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas and Little Rock, Arkansas.

"I want a better future for my kids," said New York demonstrator Rutila Nunes, 38, who helps support her two teenage sons on the $8 per hour she earns as a prep cook at McDonald's.

Protest organizers said Thursday's actions to be the biggest to date, targeting chains including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC.

In Kansas City, protester Dana Wittman, 38, said the $9 per hour she makes at Pizza Hut isn't enough to make ends meet for her family, which includes three grown children. "I have to choose between paying my rent and putting food on the table," she said.

Wittman thinks workers' message isn't getting through to employers: "They are trying to swat us away like flies."

The recurring union-backed actions, which started in New York City, have steadily gathered steam since late 2012. They have helped spur a national debate about the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, despite efforts by Democrats in Congress to raise it ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections.

Protesters, many of whom are adults working 40 hours or more per week at around that wage, say they cannot survive on such pay. Experts say about $11 an hour is the poverty threshold for a family of four.

Major fast-food chains do not own most of their U.S. restaurants and leave pay decisions to franchisees, who say that raising the hourly wage will hurt their businesses.

Workers claimed a victory in July when the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board said McDonald's, not just its franchisees, can be liable for alleged labour law violations. But experts say it could take months, if not years, to resolve the cases.

A McDonald's spokeswoman said the world's biggest fast-food chain supports paying wages that are competitive in local markets and reflect a worker's skill and experience.

"We reiterate that these are not 'strikes' but are staged demonstrations," the spokeswoman said.

The drive is being led by the Service Employees International Union, whose two million members include healthcare workers, building staff, local and state government workers and public school employees.

The International Franchise Association said unions want "a shortcut to refill their steadily dwindling membership ranks and coffers." (Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Kevin Murphy in Kasas City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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