By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fast-food workers in 150 U.S. cities kicked off protests for a $15-per-hour wage that included a sit-down in New York's Times Square, where 19 demonstrators were arrested on Thursday, police said.
About 400 demonstrators hoisting placards that read "Stick together for $15 and union rights" occupied Times Square during the morning rush hour. Some protesters sat down in the street, prompting the arrests for disorderly conduct, said a spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department.
Organizers expected the biggest protests to date, with fast-food workers from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's [WEN.O] and KFC expected to walk off the job in 150 cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland. They will be joined by unionized home-care workers.
Another march and sit-down was planned for midday near Columbus Circle, a busy traffic intersection in Manhattan, demonstrators said.
"I want a better future for my kids," said demonstrator Rutila Nunes, 38, of Queens, who helps support her sons, ages 14 and 18, earning $8 an hour as a prep cook at McDonald's. Her elder son is in college studying automobile engineering, and she is deeply in debt to pay for it, she said through a Spanish interpreter.
"We're going to have walkouts all over the country," said Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for 15, a movement that seeks to raise the hourly wage to $15 and allow workers to unionize jobs from the fry basket at McDonald's to the cash register at Burger King.
The drive is being led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose 2 million members include healthcare workers, building staff, local and state government workers and public school employees.
The increase would boost the wage above the roughly $11 per hour that experts said is the poverty threshold for a family of four.
The union-backed actions have gathered steam since 2012, helping to spur a national debate about the federal minimum wage. It has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, despite efforts by Democrats in Congress to raise it ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections.
Major fast-food chains do not own most of their U.S. restaurants and leave pay decisions to franchisees, who say that raising the hourly wage will hurt their businesses.
But the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board announced in July that McDonald's, not just its franchisees, can be liable for alleged labor law violations.
The five-member, Democrat-controlled NLRB has yet to rule on the matter.
The International Franchise Association said in a statement that unions, led by the SEIU, are hiding "behind an altruistic plea for higher wages when what they really want is a shortcut to refill their steadily dwindling membership ranks and coffers."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)