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Fast food workers kick-off multi-city protests for higher pay

By Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - Hundreds of low-wage workers at fast-food chains such as McDonald's and Wendy's on Monday protested in the streets of New York, kick-starting a week of demonstrations in several major cities demanding the right to unionize and pressing for a pay raise to $15 per hour - double the federal minimum wage.

Protesters, many who earn less than the $11 per hour threshold many economists consider the cutoff for poverty-level wages, said they had nothing to lose by speaking out against their employers.

"Remaining silent is not an option because it's nearly impossible to survive on $7.25 an hour," said Kareem Starks, a McDonald's worker in Brooklyn, referring to the federal minimum wage. Organizers said as many as 500 workers turned out for the New York rallies.

But opponents of the campaign, in their highest profile response to the workers yet, put out a full-page ad in USA Today that said catering to those demands would kill jobs.

The protesting workers, who are getting support from unions, and community and religious groups, are also planning demonstrations in Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Flint, Michigan, this week.

Millions of working families and individuals in the United States struggle to live on pay that is at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which when adjusted for inflation, is worth 22 percent less than in 1968 ($9.27) and 7 percent less than in 2009 ($7.78), according to figures provided by the progressive Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute.

U.S. President Barack Obama, state and federal lawmakers, and even some corporate executives have proposed raising the federal minimum wage as a way to help lift some workers out of poverty.

The $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry has long opposed a minimum wage increase because labor is one of their largest costs.

MACHINES MAY REPLACE WORKERS

The Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policies Institute (EPI) ad responding to the workers' demands said that raising their wages to $15 an hour would hurt restaurant operators and force them to "replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices."

"The dollar menu is going to be the $5 menu and (restaurants) are going to lose sales, or they're going to have to find a way to provide the same product with less service," Michael Saltsman, EPI's research director, told Reuters.

Restaurant owners already are testing automated ordering and payments systems to save money. They also work to boost profits by moving workers to part-time from full-time and by assigning very short shifts to cover busy periods.

The response from EPI - which is funded by businesses, individuals and foundations and led by Rick Berman, a powerful lobbyist for the tobacco, alcohol, food and beverage industries - comes as protests by low-wage workers in the restaurant and retail industry are growing and attracting more media coverage.

McDonald's did not respond to a request for comment.

Devonte Yates, 21, a McDonald's worker in Milwaukee, makes $7.25 per hour and said he can only get anywhere from nine to 20 hours a week even though he'd like to work more.

Yates said he is often on call, which makes it difficult to take a second job. When he does get called to work, there is no guarantee he will get a full, eight-hours.

"The shortest shift I've ever worked is 90 minutes," he said, adding that it takes him that long to get to work on the bus, which costs $4.50 per round trip.

(Corrects 1st paragraph to show workers demand wage increase not minimum wage increase)

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)

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