By Adam Kerlin and Lisa Baertlein
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fast-food restaurant employees, many of whom work for minimum wage, protested in New York City on Thursday demanding higher pay and the right to form a union as part of a movement called "Fast Food Forward."
The campaign seeks to roughly double hourly pay to $15 an hour. It is being billed as the largest attempt to unionize fast-food workers in the United States, where the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
Leading the effort is New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a group that has helped organize low-wage carwash and grocery workers in New York.
The nearly $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry long has been known for low-paying jobs that have largely been filled by teenagers and students. But since the recession, many adults are competing for these positions.
"People just can't find decent wage jobs," said Jonathan Westin, organizing director for NYCC. "The floor needs to be raised for everybody."
A week ago, OUR Walmart, a union-backed coalition of current and former Wal-Mart Stores Inc workers seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions, picketed several Walmart stores in the United States at the start of the holiday shopping season.
Strikes were scheduled for Thursday at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza restaurants around the city.
All but three of 17 employees due to work the morning shift at a Midtown Manhattan McDonald's restaurant near Grand Central Station walked off the job early on Thursday, organizers said.
In the afternoon, some of them joined about 30 people in front of a Burger King restaurant on West 34th Street where they chanted, "Si se puede" ("Yes we can") and "We can't survive on $7.25".
McDonald's Corp, the world's biggest fast-food chain by sales, said in a statement, "The majority of McDonald's restaurants are owned and operated by independent business men and women who offer pay and benefits competitive within the quick service restaurant industry."
NYCC was expecting hundreds of workers at dozens of restaurants to take part in the actions.
Joshua Williams, 28, has been paid $7.25 an hour for the one year-plus that he has worked at a Wendy's in downtown Brooklyn. He hopes the protests will help fast-food workers earn enough to pay rent and buy necessities like food and clothing.
"We're asking for basic needs," said Williams, who works 30 to 40 hours a week and believes large fast-food companies can afford to pay workers more.
Aristides Burgos, 38, who has worked at a McDonald's near Manhattan's Rockefeller Center for three months, said his take-home pay is not enough for the "most essential" items that he, his girlfriend and his stepson need.
"It's worse than school," Burgos said. "You can have 100 percent attendance and do a good job and we get nothing for it. At least you get a certificate for doing that in school. Everyone knows it's really hard to get a raise where I work."
SOURCE OF JOBS
The National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry's trade group, said restaurants including fast-food outlets are a vital source of jobs in a sluggish economy.
A Domino's Pizza Inc spokesman said its employees receive hourly wages in addition to tips, "so our compensation system isn't necessarily an 'apples to apples' comparison to other employers."
Representatives from Wendy's Co, Burger King Worldwide Inc and Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut parent Yum Brands Inc did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The campaign's backers include UnitedNY.org, the Service Employees International Union, which bills itself as the fastest-growing labor organization in North America, and the Black Institute, NYCC's Westin said.
New York City Comptroller John Liu called the campaign "a fight that matters to us all." Liu said wages of many fast-food workers are so low they have to rely on public assistance ranging from food stamps to government-paid health care.
Supporters of the action said fast-food chains, which reap big profits and offer hefty compensation to senior executives, can afford to raise wages for front-line employees.
McDonald's reported a profit of $5.50 billion last year. Yum, which gets well over half of its profits overseas, had net income of $1.32 billion for 2011.
Richard Adams, a former McDonald's franchise director and restaurant owner who now advises the company's franchisees, said raising pay to $15 per hour would be an "insane increase" that would add at least $1 to $2 to the cost of a fast-food sandwich.
"There goes the Dollar Menu," Adams said, referring to McDonald's low-priced selections.
(Reporting by Adam Kerlin in New York and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Writing by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Von Ahn)