By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of McDonald's workers seeking a minimum wage of $15 per hour swarmed the fast-food giant's headquarters for the first of two days of protests to coincide with the fast-food chain's annual meeting on Thursday.
Protests by low-wage fast-food and retail workers have helped fuel a national debate about pay levels. Companies such as McDonald's Corp (MCD.N) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) are raising starting pay and cities like Seattle and Chicago are boosting their minimum wages over time.
Tyree Johnson, 47, of Chicago joined thousands of others for noisy but peaceful protests outside McDonald's headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook on Wednesday.
"They keep telling me they value me but they don't give me more money," said Johnson, who has worked in McDonald's restaurants since 1992 and says he lives in a men's hotel because he can't afford an apartment on his wage of $8.55 per hour.
"We respect their right to peacefully protest," McDonald's spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said. She said the world's largest restaurant chain regularly looks at the wage issue.
Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's new chief executive, last month announced that starting pay at company-operated restaurants would be set at $1 above the locally mandated minimum wage, beginning on July 1. By the end of 2016, McDonald's expects the average hourly pay rate to be above $10 per hour.
Those increases only apply to some 90,000 workers at the roughly 1,500 U.S. restaurants McDonald's operates. They do not affect around 660,000 other restaurant workers employed by U.S. McDonald's franchisees.
Some workers were quick to criticize the announcement, saying it was too little to make a real difference and affected too few workers.
The decision also angered some McDonald's restaurant operators, who said it would put additional cost pressure on franchisees struggling to maintain profits at a time when sales have been weakened by intense competition and internal missteps that have slowed service.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which backs the worker protests, also is pressuring McDonald's through legislative and regulatory channels.
On Wednesday, a group of top U.S. pension fund leaders warned that McDonald's and other companies may be jeopardizing their own futures by returning excessive amounts of cash to investors via share buybacks.
Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., currently have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Leslie Adler)