Union members holding signs in protest outside San Jose City Hall
Members of the California Fast Food Workers Union rally at San Jose City Hall calling out Councilmember David Cohen on Feb. 21, 2024. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Dozens of fast-food workers and their families swarmed San Jose Councilmember David Cohen as he walked to his office, chanting “which side are you on, Cohen?”

Members of the California Fast Food Workers Union held posters of his face plastered with the same phrase, and followed the North San Jose representative from the council chambers to his office on Wednesday afternoon.

The workers are particularly frustrated with Cohen because they think he’s walking back his support for a potential city policy that aims to expand benefits for San Jose fast-food workers who are part of a nationwide chain with dozens of stores. They believe his switch is politically motivated because he’s running for reelection in District 4 against former Assemblymember Kansen Chu. Cohen denies these claims.

The potential policy would allow San Jose fast-food workers to accrue paid time off and get a paid day for an annual training that educates workers on their rights and benefits. The policy has yet to be introduced.


San Jose Councilmember David Cohen was confronted by fast food workers who want him to support a city policy that work expand their benefits. Read more at sanjosespotlight.com #workers #union #sanjose #city #fastfood #workersrights #localpolitics

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Maria Maldonado, statewide field director of the union, said Cohen supported the policy in a closed-door meeting in December. Three months later, he told the Mercury News he was “skeptical” of it. During that three-month span, councilmembers met with fast-food lobbyists more than 20 times and Strong Economy Silicon Valley, a political action committee (PAC) funded by fast-food corporations, spent $18,000 on ads against Chu.

Maldonado worries that Cohen is particularly vulnerable to political pressures because he’s in a tight race, so workers are adding pressure from another direction.

“We want to know if he is on the side of the workers or on the side of the big corporations?” Maldonado told San José Spotlight.

But Cohen said the union is misunderstanding his position. The policy has yet to be drafted, so for that reason, Cohen said he’s “skeptical” about how to make it work — not about his support for fast-food workers.

“It seems like strange tactics to preemptively attack people for a policy that hasn’t yet been formulated,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “When I met with them, they said they thought I was well suited to try to work with both sides to find something that would be acceptable, and that’s been my objective all along.”

Several unions along with advocacy group Working Partnerships USA have held meetings with city officials in hopes of bringing forward such a policy since last fall.

Fast food enters local politics  

In response, a number of new lobbyists have registered in San Jose to support fast-food corporations and franchisees.

McDonald’s Corporation registered its in-house lobbyist, Jessica Lynam, with the city. A coalition called Save Local Restaurants, which includes major franchise groups, hired prolific lobbyists Leslee Guardino and Jim Cunneen to lobby against the potential policy. And Silicon Valley Advisors’ Pete Carrillo is now representing Willco Management, an owner of numerous McDonald’s locations.

Many of those same corporations are also funding The Strong Economy Silicon Valley PAC, which donated $18,000 via the Silicon Valley Biz PAC for digital ads against Chu. Donors include Burger King, RMV Foods which owns a number of Popeyes locations, Kumar Management Corporation which owns several Taco Bells and CAM-BAS, Inc. which operates local McDonald’s locations.

Cohen, who met with fast-food lobbyists four times in the last three months, said he did so to understand potential impacts.

“It’s necessary and important when crafting policy to make sure you understand how the policies you propose affect everybody,” Cohen said. “This is not an either or, this has to be both, to be successful.”

Will the policy pass?

Sources close to the union said the policy should go to the San Jose City Council in a matter of weeks, and there are already five councilmembers backing it.

“Cohen is the sixth one we need (to pass this policy),” Burger King employee Celeste Perez told San José Spotlight.

Perez said San Jose needs to adopt this or similar policies because working in the fast-food industry has become untenable. Not only are workers paid below a living wage, she said, but they also can’t take any paid time off aside from the five sick days guaranteed by the state — up from three sick days because of a 2023 bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

San Jose has one of the largest populations of fast-food workers, with 13,500 workers in the city, according to the union. For that reason, San Jose and Los Angeles are the only two cities where such a policy is being pushed.

Since the pandemic, fast-food workers have been striking and lobbying for better benefits. They secured a victory at the state level last summer with the passage of AB 1228 — raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $20 per hour which starts in April. The bill also creates a fast-food council of nine members that will hold public meetings at least every six months to focus on issues of fast-food restaurant health, safety and employment conditions.

“That was a huge win, but there is a lot more work to do, which is why we want to pass legislation on the local level,” Maldonado said. “And until (conditions improve) councilmembers are going to continue hearing from the workers, they will continue to be loud and I’m pretty sure that they will win.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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