Thousands of workers at McDonald's and other fast food outlets across the United States halted work Thursday in what organizers called the "largest-ever strike" to hit the $200 billion industry.
Workers in 60 cities put down burgers and fries to join the fight for $15 an hour -- double what most currently earn -- and the right to form a union without retaliation, organizers said.
"They make millions that come from our feet. They can afford to pay us better," Shaniqua Davis, 20, told AFP at a demonstration outside a McDonald's on New York's posh Fifth Avenue.
Davis has a one-year-old child and works at a branch of the restaurant in the Bronx where she earns $7.25 an hour.
"I have bills to pay. I need to buy diapers. I can hardly buy food. I am treated good but we need more money."
She said if it wasn't for food stamps and help she received to pay her rent "I would already be on the street."
Kendall Fells of the campaign group Fast Food Forward hit out at working conditions for people who had "no health insurance, no guarantee of hours."
"In (New York City) they make $7.25 an hour. If you look at any statistics of how much it takes you to survive in NYC, just food, clothing and rent, it's over $20 an hour."
The protest movement first began in New York last November with a strike by 200 workers but quickly spread across the country with strikes in July taking place in Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Kansas City, Milwaukee and St Louis.
On Thursday organizers said the strike hit some 1,000 major fast-food restaurants, including Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC.
"Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make worker wages supersize!" read a tweet from Fight for 15, a workers organizing committee.
Many of the three million fast-food workers in America don't work full-time and cannot count on tips like those who staff bars and restaurants.
"Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family," said Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union, which is supporting the strike.
"The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day."
As the movement goes viral, it has become clear that the traditional image of a McDonald's worker -- a carefree adolescent flipping burgers until something better comes along -- has changed.
Fells from Fast Food Forward said that after the recession the average age of a fast food worker was 28. Two-thirds were women with an average age of 32.
"More people are looking to this as a real job rather than a transition or entry-level job," said Jefferson Cowie, of Cornell University's Department of Labor Relations, Law, and History.
Cowie told AFP that while wages have stagnated in the industry since the 1970s, "the recession really did not help." Neither has unemployment and the increased difficulty of accessing higher education.
He said he was not optimistic for the short-term success of the strike because, in the case of outlets like McDonald's, each branch is owned by an individual rather than the enterprise.
"It's a really important social pressure (but) they are not going to change things overnight. It will be a huge long-term struggle."
The National Restaurant Association defended the industry, saying it provided opportunity through jobs "that meet critical needs within our economy."
"The fact is, only five percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers," said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs with the organization.
"Restaurant jobs teach valuable skills and a strong work ethic that are useful for workers throughout their professional careers."