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Demonstrators gather outside a McDonald's restaurant in New York, May 15, 2014.BRENDAN MCDERMID/Reuters

Steven Wilkerson spends long hours working alone at three restaurants in a Hess gas station in Tampa – a Dunkin' Donuts, a Quiznos and a Godfathers Pizza – all for just $8.50 (U.S.) per hour. Three years ago he made just $7.50.

The 28-year-old former U.S. Marine tried to find a role in communications, and later security, after his tour of duty in Iraq. He went to more than 30 interviews, but was told repeatedly that he didn't have enough experience for jobs he wanted.

"You know, everybody tells you when you're in the military you'll get any job you want when you get back to the civilian world. That wasn't the case with me," said Mr. Wilkerson, speaking over the chanting, whistle and sirens of the 50 people gathered around him. "I went through hell just to get the one raise that I got."

On Thursday, he protested in front of a local McDonald's with a group called Florida Fight for 15 – employees that have joined together to campaign for a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the ability to unionize. Thousands of fast-food employees from restaurants such as McDonald's Corp., Wendy's Co. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. in more than 150 cities in the U.S., and almost 100 others across the world, in places as far as Japan, Africa and the Caribbean, also participated.

The discontent of these workers reflects the rising income inequality that has swept through the U.S. labour market in the past 30 years, and the risks this gap could pose around the globe. A global risk report from the World Economic Forum this year found income disparity the "most likely risk to cause an impact on a global scale in the next decade."

The issue is highly visible in the United States. "People at the low end of the income scale, their incomes are outright falling," said Francis Fong, senior economist at TD Economics. A the same time, middle-income workers wage growth is relatively flat, and in the upper bracket, income growth has been strong, he said. "The higher up you are on the income scale, the better your income growth is."

Canadian fast-food employees weren't part of the international event, but workers also struggle with low-paying jobs. For the past four years, more than 1 million people have worked for minimum wage or less, according to Statistics Canada data. In 2013, employees in that bracket made up 6.7 per cent of the work force, and there were almost twice as many workers in these jobs as there were in 2000. Accommodation and food services is the lowest-paid industry group in Canada.

Minimum wage is as low as $9.95 (Canadian) per hour in Alberta, and as high at $11-per-hour in Nunavut, with Ontario preparing to raise its minimum wage to $11 per hour in June.

U.S. President Barack Obama has also been focused on raising the minimum wage in the U.S., signing a directive to raise the rate for federal contract workers to $10.10 (U.S.) per hour next year from $7.25.

Fast-food companies say they are facing their own pressures, including higher labour and commodity costs. There's an intense battle for market share occurring in the "informal eating out" category, which McDonald's says is a $1.2-trillion market.

Some chains haven't be able to handle the pressure. Quiznos and Sbarro Inc. both filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and Chipotle is raising food prices as drought drives up costs.

McDonald's was one of the largest targets of protests in the U.S. and abroad, and the company issued a statement on the rallies, saying it respects employees' right to protest lawfully and peacefully. "If employees participate in these activities, they are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts," spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said in a statement.

The company also said it would respect workers' choice to unionize, but did not address the issue of pay.

Mario Crowley, 21, was one of the about 200 employees who walked off his job as shift manager at a McDonald's in Milwaukee, Wis. He's been working in the restaurant for about seven years. He makes $8.50 per hour, but thinks at least $12 would be fair, and he wants to unionize.

"Once you go to work, there's nobody who has your back," Mr. Crowley said. He's taken on other part-time jobs, including working for a local politician. "But I still need more [money] to help my parents, and to help myself," he said.

In the past year, he said, workers in his area have gone on strike five times.

It would be difficult for workers in Canada to strike because non-union employees have no protection and could be fired, said Tim Gleason, partner at Dewart Gleason LLP law firm in Toronto, which specializes in commercial litigation and the protection of collective agreement and bargaining rights, among other things.

In the U.S. there is some protection for "economic strikers" which includes employees who want higher wages or better working conditions, and many of the protest groups in the U.S. were briefed by lawyers on their rights ahead of the day, according to protesters.

Mr. Wilkerson said today's walk-outs are only a first step towards the pay raise they feel they deserve. "There's going to be lot more work ahead," he said.

Follow Jacqueline Nelson on Twitter: @j2nelsonOpens in a new window

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