Sat, Jul

How California’s Fast-Food Workers Won $20 an Hour


AB1228 - More than half a million fast-food workers in California are about to get a raise—not because of the voluntary generosity of their bosses, but as a result of a hard-won labor victory. Governor Gavin Newsom on September 28 signed AB 1228 into law; its title says it all: “Fast Food Council: health, safety, employment, and minimum wage.”

As a result of this new law, the state of California will form a council, which will include worker representatives, to oversee health, safety, and workplace matters for fast-food workers and to decide their minimum wage. Further, the law pushes up the minimum wage for such workers to $20 an hour starting next April after which the council will determine subsequent annual increases.

That starting point of $20 an hour is significantly more than the state’s already relatively high minimum wage of $15.50 an hour (one that’s set to increase to $16 in January 2024). California’s fast-food workers will now be among the highest-paid low-wage workers in the nation.

The origins of this momentous victory can be traced back to a movement that began on the opposite side of the country more than a decade ago. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s Fight for $15 campaign, launched in the form of a walkout in New York City in 2012 demanded a wage floor that, at the time, sounded audacious. While it’s no longer terribly bold to demand $15 an hour in an economy where inflation has disproportionately impacted low-wage workers and where billionaires continue to enjoy unimaginable riches, consider this: there are more than a dozen states in the U.S. where the minimum wage remains pegged to the ridiculously paltry federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

The Fight for $15 movement used a clever alliteration to change the narrative on what low-wage workers deserved to earn. Earning its fair share of well-deserved criticism for not building explicit “worker power,” SEIU has poured millions of dollars of resources into the movement, playing the long game toward building a national fast-food workers’ union, one that has yet to materialize.

In the interim, SEIU has championed the idea of forming sector-specific councils at the state level, which is what AB 1228 is centered on. The New York Times described this as, “sectoral bargaining, in which workers and management negotiate wages and conditions across an entire industry as opposed to at individual companies, often location by location.” By forming alliances with state representatives, organized labor can demand regulations of industries where workers are routinely abused and exploited without having to wait for union representation.

Starbucks workers understand the challenge of organizing unions one restaurant at a time. While workers at hundreds of the coffee chain’s locations have successfully petitioned to join Starbucks Workers United (SWU), none have been able to sign a union contract with Starbucks yet. The company has violated so many labor laws so fast that the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been unable to keep up.

All Starbucks has to do is fire workers known to lead union organizing drives and then ignore the NLRB’s demand to negotiate if and when a complaint is filed. The current labor laws are toothless in the face of such aggressive union-busting.

The fast-food industry is even more challenging. Unlike Starbucks, fast-food corporations tend to operate on a franchise model, which helps parent companies avoid liability for labor violations at individual restaurants. According to a 2021 report by the UCLA Labor Center, fast-food workers routinely “experience physical assault, harassment, intimidation, threats, and verbal abuse.” Further, “Restaurant workers have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry.”

That ability to intimidate workers is key to why unionization efforts have failed (Fight for $15’s original sentiment was “$15 and a union”). It’s one thing to demand higher wages by walking out for a day—which many workers have risked their jobs to do numerous times—and it’s another thing to organize for permanent union protection.

The fast-food industry is so antagonistic to labor organizing that it threatened to go directly to voters in a high-stakes gamble at the ballot box when Newsom signed an earlier version of the new labor law in 2022 that included holding parent companies responsible for its franchises. An industry-funded proposition slated for the November 2024 California ballot would have asked voters to rollback the labor law.

Democratic as the state’s ballot measures are on paper, moneyed interests have tested the system time and again, realizing that massively well-funded public relations campaigns to deceive voters into backing corporate interests offer a great ROI (return on investment) to preserve shareholder profits.

The highest profile case in point is the 2020 California ballot measure Proposition 22, which allowed rideshare and delivery companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their employees as individual contractors, and therefore exempt them from standard labor protections. The industry spent upward of $200 million to pass Proposition 22—the most expensive ballot battle at the time—and prevailed, even in a state that embraces labor rights.

Likely realizing that the fast-food industry could hire armies of PR consultants, marketing experts, and election campaigners to similarly convince voters that the 2022 labor law was not in their best interest, the governor’s office brought labor and fast-food to the negotiating table. AB 1228 was the result of a compromise that was struck: the legislature would pass a new version of the bill without the threat to the franchise model in exchange for the fast-food companies withdrawing their ballot measure to undo the entire law.

On the one hand, the passage of this new labor law proves that a corporate oligarchy still has far too much sway on our democratic processes, using money and resources as weapons to undermine people’s rights.

On the other hand, it also proves that there is no need to capitulate to corporate employers and that an alliance between organized labor and lawmakers can move the needle on workers’ rights. Further, the fact that this battle took place in California, the nation’s largest, and the world’s fourth-largest economy, creates a strong precedent for the rest of the nation.

Most importantly, more than half a million low-wage workers struggling in one of the most exploitative industries in the nation will shortly get a decent pay bump and enjoy a measure of protection from the forthcoming council.

(Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.  This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.)