Silver Taube: The restaurant industry wants to halt a law giving fast-food workers a seat at the table
Fast-food workers protesting in August 2021 at a Burger King on Almaden Road in San Jose. File photo.

On Labor Day, Gov. Gavin Newson signed the landmark bill, AB 257, the FAST Recovery Act, into law.

The law will establish a 10-member council with four seats held by fast-food franchisor and franchisee representatives, four seats held by fast-food worker representatives and advocates and two seats held by representatives of the Department of Industrial Relations and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. The Fast Food Council could start setting hourly wages at up to $22 an hour by 2023 that would increase with the consumer price index or up to 3.5% a year.

The council would “promulgate minimum standards” for wages, hours and working conditions for fast-food restaurants where the predominantly Black and Latino workers largely aren’t unionized and would establish protections for workers who experience retaliation. The standards the council sets would apply to any chain in California that has at least 100 stores nationwide with a common brand.

When AB 257 was working its way through the state Legislature, the restaurant industry vowed to prevent it from ever becoming law.

When the restaurant industry lost its battle, Protect Neighborhood Restaurants, a restaurant industry coalition backed by global corporations like McDonalds, filed a referendum request on Wednesday. If the restaurant coalition gathers enough signatures, the new law would be halted until the fall of 2024, when it would be voted on by California voters.

On the same day the restaurant industry filed the referendum request, Rep. Ro Khanna and movement leaders from organizations that include the NAACP, the National Women’s Law Center and the Poor People’s Campaign held a news conference blasting the fast-food industry’s referendum for seeking to spend big to silence Black and Latino workers.

With more than 550,000 workers across more than 30,000 locations, California’s fast-food industry stands out as one of the largest, fastest growing low-wage workforces in the state. California’s fast-food workforce is nearly 80% people of color, more than 60% Latino and two-thirds women.

recent study conducted by Harvard and the University of California San Francisco found the state’s fast-food workers are paid $3 per hour less than comparable service-sector workers.

California fast-food workers are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than other workers, and more likely to rely on public assistance. Two-thirds of California fast-food workers were either on public assistance or had a family member who was, with nearly one in three on SNAP due to food insecurity, amounting to $4 billion in statewide expenditures.

In a recent survey of California fast-food workers, an astonishing 85% of respondents reported experiencing wage theft.

AB 257 seeks to give workers a voice on the job and to remedy wage theft, violence, health and safety issues, and sexual harassment that are rampant in the industry.

“We’re not trying to tell these franchisees and corporations how to run their business. We just want them to listen to some of our ideas, that’s it,” said Anneisha Williams.

Williams filed a complaint with the Labor Commission when she was not provided COVID supplemental paid sick leave when she was absent from work to care for her young son who contracted COVID.

“We shouldn’t have to struggle so much,” she said. “We want to be treated like we’re actually human beings.”

The establishment of a  fast-food workers’ council is based in well-settled principles of law, wrote Berkeley law professors Catherine Fisk and Amy Reavis.

“It is akin to existing appointed bodies, such as the California Energy Commission and California Coastal Commission, that are designed to tackle difficult issues and ensure input from stakeholders,” they wrote.

In many European countries, unions negotiate working standards that apply to workers across an entire industry or sector, not just one company. In 2015, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened a wage board to evaluate compensation in the state’s fast-food industry. This led to an increase in the minimum wage for New York fast-food workers, phased in over six years. In 2018, Seattle established a labor standards board to make recommendations for domestic workers, and Detroit followed suit with a multi-industry board in 2021.

In a Forbes article entitled “Why AB 257 Could Be Lifechanging for California’s Fast Food Workers,” Errol Schweizer, a former vice president of grocery for Whole Foods, says: “AB257 is a positive move towards normalizing living wages, dignity and worker power in a hugely popular and profitable industry, and one good step towards paying down society’s debt to fast food workers.”

It is disappointing that the restaurant industry is intent on halting a bill that could change the life of fast-food workers in California by giving them a seat at the table.

San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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