California’s fast-food industry calls for referendum on new labor legislation | US unions

The fast-food industry is seeking to overturn one of the most significant labor wins in recent American history by trying to scrap a new law in California that will establish an industry council for the sector on wage standards and other regulations, including safety.

The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, AB 257, was signed into law by the California governor, Gavin Newsom, on 5 September in what is seen as a huge fillip to a US labor movement seeking to capitalize on a wave of unionization drives.

The law paves the way for a statewide fast-food sector council that includes workers, state regulators, franchises and their parent companies to establish wage standards and other regulations for the industry in the state.

There are about 500,000 workers in the fast-food industry in California who will be represented under the law. It also provides a pathway for local municipalities to create their own similar councils overseeing the industry and to report to the statewide council. The law only applies to fast-food corporations with at least 100 retail locations nationwide under a common brand.

The law is the first of its kind in the US, with workers in other states pushing to pass similar legislation, such as nail salon workers in New York.

Fast-food workers have long reported widespread issues of violence on the job, sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation for reporting abuses or for organizing, wage theft and poverty wages. The new law has been touted as a means to start addressing these issues that run rampant through the industry. Fast-food workers around California held over 300 strikes in the past year to rally support in favor of the legislation.

As workers are now organizing to collect signatures to create the councils, the fast-food industry is mobilizing to try to overturn the law, claiming it will harm businesses and lead to a 20% increase in menu prices due to possible wage increases to up to $22 an hour in 2023. The industry also claims the law will not bolster worker protections.

A line of cars at a McDonald’s drive-through.
Cars wait in the drive-through line at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

Opponents have also claimed the law could lead to restaurant closures and dissuade franchise owners from opening new locations in California.

The National Restaurant Association and International Franchise Association has created a coalition of industry groups to back a statewide voter referendum initiative to overturn the law, and has warned that other states could follow suit in passing similar laws. Major fast-food corporations spent at least $1m lobbying against the bill between June 2021 and June 2022.

The law is set to come into effect on 1 January 2023, but could be delayed if a referendum vote is allowed to move forward. If the referendum request is accepted by California’s attorney general, the groups backing the referendum would have until 1 April 2023 to collect roughly 623,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2024 state ballot.

During a press call, workers and labor leaders criticized the referendum proposal as a means to silence workers and an attempt by fast-food corporations to utilize their wealth to subvert democracy.

“We’re going to keep organizing to fight the opposition,” said Lizzet Aguilar, who has worked at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, California, for nearly 20 years. “We’re going to keep fighting. We have a lot of opposition, but we have to keep showing we want our union.”

Others workers have described their own experiences.

Alondra Hernandez helped organize a strike at the Burger King where she works in Oakland, California, after experiencing several instances of violence from customers while she was on the job. “There wasn’t a day when I went home and didn’t acknowledge a violent issue had happened at work,” said Hernandez.

She explained that she and her co-workers started organizing for better security measures after an incident when a customer came into the store from the drive-through with their food, threw a burger at a co-worker’s face while demanding a refund and shattered a Plexiglas screen that cut the face of one of her supervisors.

“With AB 257, there’s going to be the potential where we’ll have training on how to handle issues like these, to improve inspections into working conditions at stores and help improve our wages,” said Hernandez. “I believe with this council, government representatives, workers and representatives from the industry, that the representation is fair. Not one side is going to win everything, but we’ll have stability.”

Advocates of the bill have noted its passage is an important step toward fast-food workers ultimately organizing a union, a task that has eluded workers due to high turnover, franchising and the widespread retaliation workers face throughout the industry. Less than 2% of workers in the food services and drinking places industry are currently represented by labor unions.

Aguilar said she had led her co-workers on several strikes over unsafe Covid-19 working conditions in 2020, and she, along with other workers, were fired in retaliation. The state of California eventually issued a fine to the franchise owner and ordered the workers to be reinstated with back pay in 2021.

“This law means a lot,” said Aguilar. “It’s a great victory. Fast-food workers have been through a lot at work. AB 257 is going to have a lot of benefits for workers, like helping to end discrimination, violence on the job and the injustice of wage theft. Many of us have been victims of wage theft.”