Workers, allies push California fast food law
New law would empower fast food workers. | Gene J. Puskar/AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A coalition of more than 50 groups, led by the Economic Policy Institute and including workers advocates and civic allies, is pushing a landmark law in California to empower fast-food workers and franchise-holders against McDonald’s, Burger King, and other corporate giants that now hold a grip on both.

EPI basically crafted AB257, which narrowly missed passing the Democratic-run pro-worker State Assembly last year. It’s due for a vote in early 2022. It would establish “sectoral bargaining” in the fast-food industry, forcing corporate giants to negotiate with their 557,000 workers—80% of them workers of color—and local franchises whom those giants now control.

Right now, under federal labor law, especially when the GOP Trump regime ran the National Labor Relations Board, workers are punted from pillar to post when they try to figure out who to bargain with: The local McDonald’s restaurant or McDonald’s headquarters in Illinois. The same dilemma when fast-food workers, unionized or not, try to determine who broke labor law or imposed horrifying working conditions.

For their part, the franchise holders are also powerless against corporate HQs, whose execs can set the standards for everything from workers’ uniforms to the price of a Big Mac, regardless of the impact on the local restaurants.

AB257 would change all that, say the groups and its legislative sponsors, by putting workers, franchise owners, corporate executives, and state regulators all at the same bargaining table. That 11-member Fast Food Sector Council would hash out master contracts covering all fast-food workers in the Golden State, with the muscle of state enforcement to ensure the corporations obey the law and subsequent rules.

In other words, sectoral bargaining, a concept widespread in Europe, but unknown in the U.S. The closest comparison here is when the United Auto Workers chooses one of the Detroit 3 as the firm it will bargain a ”pattern contract” with, or when the Steelworkers’ oil conference does the same with one of the Seven Sisters.

The State Assembly is working through AB257 now, with the latest amendments offered on January 20. The council would “establish sector-wide minimum standards on wages, working hours, and other conditions related to the health, safety, and welfare of, and supplying the necessary cost of proper living to, fast food restaurant workers, as well as effecting interagency coordination and prompt agency responses in this regard,” the State Assembly’s legislative digest says.

It also would define fast food restaurants. Each must be “part of a set of restaurants consisting of 30 or more establishments nationally that share a common brand, or are characterized by standardized options for decor, marketing, packaging, products, and services”—the facets each fast-food corporate headquarters control in each eatery nationally.

In their letter to lawmakers, EPI, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Employment Law Project, and the other groups urged passage for several reasons. The prime one is it would empower the fast food workers and improve their livelihoods thus benefiting them and the state as a whole.

Low wages are a big driver for the law, one analysis says. The average fast food worker in California last year earned $14.57 an hour and thousands didn’t work 40-hour weeks. The state minimum wage now is $15.

And since California, home to one of every eight people in the U.S., is often a trendsetter for the rest of the nation, AB257 would be a powerful goad to other states to do the same for their workers.

“AB257, the FAST Recovery Act, is an important step toward improving many of the issues facing California’s fast-food workforce, and crucially, invites the workers who are experts on their workplaces into the process of designing solutions,” the advocates wrote.

“This proposed legislation is important for workers across the country and for shaping the future of our national economy…Nationally, policymakers and analysts continue to look to California as a laboratory for progressive and innovative legislative solutions,” their letter adds.

“In the past year alone, workers have led more than 300 strikes and protests across the state, sounding the alarm on an industry in crisis. Workers are standing up against egregious workplace violations like wage theft, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, retaliation for organizing, and health and safety hazards.

“Fast-food workers’ power to address these problems, however, is too often limited by the franchise model, in which billion-dollar fast-food companies like McDonald’s retain control of franchisee operations while abdicating responsibility for their front-line workers. This ‘fissured’ industry leaves workers to deal with poor working conditions and leaves small operators with little authority and few resources to address workers’ issues.”

Sectoral bargaining, with the power of state enforcement behind it, closes that fissure and holds the corporate class—the headquarters—accountable, the letter adds.

Other backers of AB257 include the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Black Workers Center, the National Partnership for Women and Families, One Fair Wage, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, and local pro-worker groups from Pittsburgh, Nevada, Florida, Indiana, and Connecticut.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.