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Low-wage workers' massive show of strength

In what's being touted as the largest ever mobilization of U.S. workers seeking higher pay, low-wage employees are rallying across the country Wednesday.

In what organizers are calling the largest ever mobilization of American workers seeking higher pay, low-wage employees from a range of sectors walked off the job and rallied in hundreds of cities across the country Wednesday.

It was the most ambitious action yet for a living wage campaign that has already put corporate giants like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s on the defensive. The push for a higher minimum wage is even powerfully shaping the early presidential race.

RELATED: Target hikes minimum wages, joins a growing club

At the forefront were fast-food workers, home health care aides, child-care providers, airport and industrial laundry employees, and others whose hourly pay doesn’t come close to supporting a family. From New York City to Pasadena, California—and also places like Clarkston, Georgia and Greenfield, Wisconsin—they’re demanding $15, which for many would be close to double their current wage.

In a show of coalition-building, workers were joined by students, adjunct professors, construction workers, and activists from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many wore sweatshirts declaring "I Can't Breathe," a slogan of the movement for police reform. There’s even a global component, with the international labor movement working to coordinate protests across 35 countries, including strikes in places as far as Italy and New Zealand.

In the New York City borough of Brooklyn first thing on Wednesday, around 200 low-wage workers from a range of industries occupied an intersection for about 15 minutes, stopping early-morning traffic at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, which carries commuters into Manhattan.

Later Wednesday, several hundred more workers gathered to march and rally on the Upper West Side. Outside a McDonald's at 71st Street and Broadway, around 100 staged a "die-in," lying on the ground for several minutes to illustrate the impact that poverty-level wages are having on them and their families.

"Right now, I'm living check to check," McDonald's worker Jumal Tarver told msnbc, adding that an increase in the minimum wage to $15, "would help me take care of my two daughters and also be able to afford an apartment." 

Tarver, who lives in upper Manhattan, said so far he is pleased with the success of the movement. "It shows we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not going to stop until we get what we we’re trying to accomplish," he said.

An analysis by Goldman Sachs last June found that job growth was actually a little higher in states that raised their minimum wage at the start of 2014 than in those that didn’t.'

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told msnbc she and her colleagues are asking state lawmakers to allow the city to raise its minimum wage, as cities like Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco have recently done. 

"We need to raise it to a level that people can provide for their families and be able to live and have a quality of life here in New York City," Mark-Viverito said.

A day before, Boston fast-food workers walked off the job. Their protest came a day early, out of deference to the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, which fell on Wednesday.

The campaign, which launched in 2012, is riding a wave of momentum. In recent years, numerous cities and states — including deep-red Alaska, Arkansas, and Nebraska this year — have raised their minimum wage above the federal $7.25 an hour, with Seattle and San Francisco going all the way to $15.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is said to be building support for a proposal that would bring the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour — a nearly $5 increase that just a few years ago would have seemed wildly unrealistic.

The effort has been boosted by a growing body of economic research suggesting that raising the minimum wage doesn’t significantly reduce job growth. That’s helped undercut conservatives’ central argument in opposition to a raise. An analysis by Goldman Sachs last June found that job growth was actually a little higher in states that raised their minimum wage at the start of 2014 than in those that didn’t.

RELATED: McDonald’s wage hike still falls short

Major employers are taking note. In February, Wal-Mart announced it would raise all employees’ pay to at least $10 an hour by next year, with its CEO acknowledging that its low pay had alienated customers. T.J. Maxx, Starbucks, and other behemoths have also boosted employee pay lately.

Even McDonald’s, the chief target of the earliest protests, has joined the stampede — albeit halfheartedly. It said earlier this month it would pay at least $1 an hour more than the local minimum wage at the restaurants it owns. The catch? Because of franchise arrangements, that’s just 10% of McDonald’s workers.

Presidential candidates, too, are paying attention. Already, Hillary Clinton has signaled that the need to reduce inequality and give struggling low-wage workers a boost will be a major focus of her campaign. In perhaps the most memorable line from her video announcement, Clinton declared that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”

Even Republican hopefuls are suddenly talking about income inequality.

“Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel … that the playing field is no longer fair or level,” Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise political action committee declares on its website.