Protesters are calling for pay of $15 an hour, but the figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.
In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald's at around 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another didn't look up from eating and reading amid their chants of "We can't survive on $7.25!"
Community leaders took turns giving speeches for about 15 minutes until police arrived and ordered protesters out of the store. The crowd continued to demonstrate outside for about 45 minutes. A McDonald's manager declined to be interviewed and asked that the handful of customers not be bothered.
Later in the day, about 50 protesters rallied outside a Wendy's in Brooklyn, with their presence discouraging customers from entering.
In Washington, D.C., about 100 people protested outside a McDonald's in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Only a handful of the protesters said they worked at the restaurant andnone were scheduled to work Thursday.
At one point, about a dozen protesters entered the store, but security guards prevented them from approaching the service counter or interfering with customers.
In Detroit, about 50 demonstrators turned out for a pre-dawn rally in front of a McDonald's. A few employees said they weren't working but a manager and other employees kept the restaurant open.
Julius Waters, a 29-year-old McDonald's maintenance worker who was among the protesters, said it's hard making ends meet on his wage of $7.40 an hour.
"I need a better wage for myself, because, right now, I'm relying on aid, and $7.40 is not able to help me maintain taking care of my son. I'm a single parent," Waters said.
The push for higher pay in fast food faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on value offerings and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were hiked. Most fast-food locations are also owned and operated by franchisees, which lets companies such as McDonald's Corp., Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Yum Brands Inc. say they don't control worker pay.
Labor advocates have pointed out that companies control many other aspects of restaurant operations through their franchise agreements, including menus, suppliers and equipment.
No protesters at planned Utah rallies
What if you hosted a protest and nobody showed up?
That's what happened with two planned protests for higher wages for fast-wood workers that were supposed to occur at two Utah McDonald's Thursday. One was scheduled in Salt Lake City and another in Provo.
Justin Kramer, who organized the Salt Lake City rally at a McDonald's at 2100 S. 300 West, said Thursday he had to cancel the protest at the last second after announcing it two days ago when he lost support from other workers who originally were going to show up. "There were last-minute cancellations," he said.
A local McDonald's spokesperson said Thursday that no protestors showed up at a second rally planned at a McDonald's restaurant at at 1225 S. University Ave. in Provo that was organized by the national campaign, LowPayIsNotOK.org.
While the national minimum wage is $7.25, the starting pay for at the 2100 South McDonald's is above $8, the spokesperson said. Utah is a "right-to-work" state in which joining a union is not a condition for employment.