WASHINGTON (AFP) - Fast-food workers across the country launched on Thursday day-long labor strikes in an effort to win higher wages, amid a renewed debate on raising the minimum wage in Washington.
Calling for a "surviving" wage, fast-food workers seek a pay hike to US$15 (S$18.8) an hour in an industry that typically pays them the federal minimum wage of US$7.25 an hour.
Shementia Butler, 33, who works at McDonald's in Washington and has two children, said being paid US$15 an hour would alleviate the need for government aid to fast-food workers.
"I'm struggling and I'm still dependent on government assistance to help take care of me and my family," said Ms Butler, who earns about US$800 a month but must pay a monthly rent of US$1,000.
The response at work when Ms Butler presses for higher pay? "'If you don't like it, quit,'", Ms Butler said she was told by the restaurant's management.
Strikes were planned in more than 100 cities on Thursday, according to organisers. They follow similar labor actions at fast-food chains last August and in late 2012.
Protesters on Thursday urged President Barack Obama and Congress to act.
"Listen to us, Obama! We're in the street," said a group of strikers who marched near the Capitol, home of the US legislature.
Delano Wingfield, 22, who joined the rally, currently works part-time at two fast-food restaurants.
"I can't afford the rent and I have to borrow money from my parents and I shouldn't have to do that," he said.
On Wednesday Mr Obama reiterated his call to hike the minimum wage, asserting that "it's well past time" to raise a wage that in inflation-adjusted terms lags the level where it stood in the 1940s.
"If you work hard, you should make a decent living," Mr Obama said. "If you work hard, you should be able to support a family." In New York, where fast-food workers first mobilized last year in a push for higher wages, demonstrators briefly occupied a McDonald's restaurant in Manhattan, while about 100 people gathered in front of a Wendy's outlet in the borough of Brooklyn.
"Together for $15 and a union!" read banners outside Wendy's. "$7.25 an hour really is nothing for a city so expensive. Food, transport, everything is going up," said Alma Sanchez, a 21-year old cashier.
The mayor-elect of New York City, Bill de Blasio, offered solid support.
"I stand fully behind the fast-food workers in our city and across the nation who are on strike today in their effort to organize for a livable wage and fair benefits," said Mr de Blasio, who won a landslide election last month to become the city's first Democrat mayor in two decades.
"We all know that while the fast-food industry rakes in billions every year, it refuses to pay its workers enough to provide for themselves or their families." A recent study by the University of Illinois found that more than half the families who work for fast-food restaurants rely on public assistance.
But efforts to raise the minimum wage face an uphill fight in Congress. The Republican-led House of Representatives in March rejected a proposal to raise the minimum wage to US$10.10 an hour.
A McDonald's spokeswoman said Thursday's demonstration should not be called a "strike" because restaurants remained opened.
"Outside groups are traveling to McDonald's and other outlets to stage rallies," she said. "Our restaurants remain open thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers." The National Restaurant Association rated Thursday's events as "a coordinated PR campaign engineered by national labor groups" in which the "vast majority" of participants are "paid demonstrators" and not real restaurant workers, said Scott DeFife, a vice president for the group.
"The restaurant industry has been one of the few industries that continued to create jobs during the recession and economic recovery," Mr DeFife said.
"Dramatic increases in a starting wage such as those called for in these rallies will challenge that job growth history... and lead to fewer jobs created."