As fast-food workers plan yet another round of one-day strikes on Thursday in cities around the country, labor leaders, economists and industry officials continue to debate the potential effects of raising wages at companies that often assert that such increases would raise consumer prices and shrink the work force.
Organizers of the fast-food workers' nascent movement are clamoring for a $15 an hour wage, which would mean a 67 percent pay increase in an industry where wages average around $9 an hour.
Restaurant industry officials have balked at so high a wage, saying it would sharply raise fast-food prices and reduce employment, in part by fueling automation of some jobs. They call the demand of $15 an hour a nonstarter as far as initiating negotiations.
(Read more: $15 minimum wage means layoffs: White Castle exec)
"When you start by insisting on $15 an hour, that's not conducive to substantive dialogue," said Scott DeFife, an executive vice president with the National Restaurant Association.
But Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has spent several million dollars to underwrite the fast-food strikes around the country that began a year ago, said it was only a matter of time before the worker protests became so great that McDonald's, Burger King and other companies agreed to negotiate.
"I think there's growing recognition that a nerve has been touched," Ms. Henry said. "The industry had better start to take this seriously, because this isn't going to blow over."
But even experts who support some increase worry that a raise to $15 an hour would have profound effects on the industry. Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said an increase in pay to $15 would push up fast-food prices by nearly 20 percent.
With the industry estimating that one-third of its costs go to labor, he said a $15 wage would mean wage increases averaging around 60 percent, raising the cost of a $3 hamburger to $3.50 or $3.60.
Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, differed slightly on the effects, saying a $15 wage would cause a somewhat lesser price increase, perhaps 10 percent, and adding that higher pay would save restaurants some money by leading to less turnover and higher productivity per worker. In addition, he said, franchisees might swallow some of the increases instead of totally offsetting them with higher prices.