Protests for $15-an-hour wages set to expand Wednesday

Boston University student Patrick Johnson, center, holds a sign as he joins with other protesters, including students, fast-food restaurant employees and other workers, as they march Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in Boston. Organizers of the event are calling for the nation's lowest paid workers to earn at least $15 per hour. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

NEW YORK (AP) — Fast-food workers calling for $15 an hour are picking up some more allies Wednesday.

Airport workers, home care workers, Walmart workers and adjunct professors are among those set to join in the Fight for $15 protests across the country, in what organizers are calling the biggest ever mobilization of workers in the U.S.

The campaign is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union and began in late 2012. On Wednesday, organizers say protests for higher pay and union for low-wage workers are planned for more than 230 cities and college campuses.

The demonstrations got an early start Tuesday afternoon in Boston, where several hundred people including college students, low-wage workers and their supporters gathered for a rally. In Detroit, protesters gathered in the evening inside a McDonald’s, and organizers say three employees walked off the job as part of the protests.

In New York City, protesters rallied outside a McDonald’s early Wednesday morning and were planning more demonstrations throughout the day.

Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said McDonald’s remains a focus of the protests and that the company’s recently announced pay bump shows fast-food workers already have a de facto union.

“It shows the workers are winning,” he said.

McDonald’s earlier this month said it would raise its starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. It marked the first national pay policy by McDonald’s, and indicates the company wants to take control of its image as an employer. But the move only applies to workers at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.

That means McDonald’s is digging in its heels over a central issue for labor organizers: Whether it has the power to set wages at franchised restaurants.

McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s say they don’t control the employment decisions at franchised restaurants. The SEIU is working to change that and hold McDonald’s responsible for labor conditions at franchised restaurants in multiple ways, including lawsuits.

In an emailed statement, McDonald’s said it respects the right to “peacefully protest” and that its restaurants will remain open Wednesday. In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald’s workers out of about 800,000 have participated.

In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook described the company’s pay hike and other perks as “an initial step,” and said he wants to transform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue rallying public support for low-wage workers. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.

Already, organizers say the Fight for $15 is changing the way people think about low-wage work.

Last year, more than a dozen states and multiple cities raised their minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has also been targeted with protests for higher wages and better treatment for workers, also recently announced pay hikes.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said stagnating wages for lower-income workers are also helping change negative attitudes about unions.

“People are beginning to wonder if they’d be better off with bargaining power,” Reich said.

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Follow Candice Choi at http://www.twitter.com/candicechoi

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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