By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As a part of a push to increase the minimum wage for American workers, Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate, on Thursday waded into a dispute between McDonald's Corp and its employees.
Sanders, one of the two dozen Democrats running for the Democratic presidential nomination, held a virtual town hall, taking questions from McDonald's workers in Dallas who protested the company's annual shareholders' meeting.
"You guys are being exploited," Sanders, speaking from Washington, told the workers.
McDonald's is under fire from activist groups for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment and violence. Employees at the company are also demanding higher pay, and are backed by a labor organizing group, Fight for $15, which is pushing 2020 presidential candidates to support a $15 national minimum wage and advocate for union rights.
As of Thursday morning, hundreds of McDonalds workers had walked off the job, according to the group.
Other 2020 Democrats have gotten involved. On Thursday, Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, appeared with striking McDonald's workers in North Carolina.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee were scheduled to stand with workers later in the day in Des Moines and Chicago, respectively.
Sanders has made workers' rights and raising the minimum wage centerpieces of his presidential campaign.
"If elected president, trust me, every worker in this country will make at least $15 an hour, and people will have the right to join unions," said Sanders. He added that he would be part of an effort to pressure the fast-food industry to raise wages.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Chicago-based McDonald's said it has more than 14,000 locations in the United States with some 850,000 workers.
Since more than 90 percent of its restaurants are franchised, the company has maintained, it cannot set wage rates, bargain collectively with unions or be responsible for the behavior of employees in its franchises.
On Tuesday, more than two dozen McDonald's workers across the country represented by Fight for $15 filed complaints of sexually harassment by coworkers or managers. Five of the workers filed lawsuits and the others lodged complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with state agencies.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the candidates' actions or the labor protests generally.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)