NEW YORK - Fast-food workers and labor organizers marched, waved signs, and chanted in cities across the country on Thursday amid a push for higher wages.

Organizers say employees planned to forgo work in 100 cities, with rallies set for another 100 cities. But by late afternoon, it was unclear what the actual turnout was or how many of the participants were workers. At targeted restaurants, the disruptions seemed minimal or temporary.

The protests are part of an effort that began about a year ago and is spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which has spent millions to bankroll local worker groups and organize publicity for the demonstrations. Protesters are calling for pay of $15 an hour, but the figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.

At a time when there's growing national and international attention on economic disparities, advocacy groups and Democrats are hoping to build public support to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That comes to about $15,000 a year for full-time work.

On Thursday, crowds gathered outside restaurants in cities including Washington; Boston; Chicago; Lakewood, Calif.; Phoenix; and Charlotte, N.C., where protesters walked into a Burger King but didn't stop customers from getting their food. In Detroit, about 50 demonstrators turned out for a predawn 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, 29, a 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.

In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald's 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. Later in the day, about 50 protesters rallied outside a Wendy's in Brooklyn.

The push for higher pay in fast food faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on being able to offer low-cost meals and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were hiked.