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Fast-food workers in New York protest for higher wages

By Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - Fast-food restaurant employees protested in New York City on Thursday, demanding higher pay and the right to form a union - the latest attempt by lower-wage workers in the United States to increase their compensation.

The campaign, called "Fast Food Forward," seeks to roughly double hourly pay to $15 an hour and is being billed as the largest attempt to unionize U.S. fast-food workers.

Leading the effort is New York Communities for Change, a group that has helped unionize low-wage carwash and grocery workers in New York.

Strikes were scheduled at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino's restaurants around the city throughout the day.

Representatives from those companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Organizers told Reuters that 14 employees at a Midtown Manhattan McDonald's restaurant near Grand Central Station had walked off the job early on Thursday morning. All but three of those people were scheduled to work, said organizers, who said they expected hundreds of workers at dozens of restaurants to participate in Thursday's action.

Joshua Williams, 28, works at a Wendy's in downtown Brooklyn and said he would be among the workers walking out on Thursday.

Williams, who said he still made a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour after working at the restaurant for more than a year, hopes to 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.

The U.S. fast-food industry has long been known for its low-paying jobs. What has changed since the last U.S. recession is that many adults now are competing with high school students for those positions - which often do not provide a living wage to full-time workers.

"People just can't find decent wage jobs," said Jonathan Westin, organizing director for NYCC. "The floor needs to be raised for everybody."

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, Westin said.

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 popular low-priced selections.

The protests come a week after OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Wal-Mart Stores Inc workers seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions - held protests at several Walmart stores across the United States.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Von Ahn)

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