By Jackie Botts and Jesse Bedayn, CalMatters
Amid growing awareness of inequality and jobs that do not pay enough to cover child care and housing, California is considering a radical proposal: Allow the state to negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions for an entire industry.
Proponents of the state legislature say a solution to inequality is to give workers the opportunity to negotiate through unions, but this does not happen in the fast food industry, where frequent replacement, inexperience and intimidation make it too difficult for workers to organize. Only 3% of fast food and counter workers are members of unions nationwide.
In Sacramento, a union-backed Democratic proposal called the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, or FAST Recovery Act, would establish a state-appointed council to adopt industry minimum standards for pay, working hours and working conditions. If the proposal is passed by state lawmakers and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, the proposal will also hold corporate franchisors accountable for compliance, not just local franchisees.
“California has the potential to really pave a way forward in a way that can work for both workers and employers,” said David Madland, a senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington, DC. tank.
The legislation approving the FAST Recovery Act, AB 257, was missing three votes to pass the state assembly last June with eight Democrats voting no and a further 13 not voting. Newsom did not take a position.
With strong support from major state working groups, the issue is expected to resurface this year, though the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, unexpectedly resigned in the first week of January to move to head of the California Labor Federation, which supports the proposal.
One of the country’s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union, promised to continue pushing the bill. It funds Fight for $ 15 and a union campaign that organizes low-wage workers to advocate for better wages and working conditions, primarily in fast food. Fight for $ 15 is planning an art demonstration, downgraded from a rally due to Omicron concerns, on Wednesday in the State Capitol and Assembly President Anthony Rendon could transfer the authorship to a committee or other legislator.
“The way forward on this bill is still being drafted,” Rendon spokeswoman Katie Talbot said.
Dealing with low wages and poor conditions
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. California’s fast food workers – the majority of whom are colored, Latinos and women – earned an average of $ 14.73 an hour in 2020, with California’s minimum wage rising to $ 15 this month for most businesses. Advocates also point out that they are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and more likely to encounter damages, theft, customer assault and harassment.
A new report from the UCLA Labor Center documents dangerous conditions during the pandemic, in which nearly a quarter of the workers surveyed have contracted the virus. Less than half said their employers offered paid sick leave – mandated by state and federal law – to workers who received COVID-19.
“It may not be in the cards to have the kind of traditional way of working we have seen in the United States in the near future,” said Saru Jayaraman, director of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center. “But it may very well be in the cards to see these truly innovative sector-wide, power-creating strategies that change entire sectors.”
The idea of negotiating wages and working conditions for an industry, rather than for each workplace separately, has been modeled for many years in Europe and around the world. Known as “sectoral negotiations,” it has also gained support among progressives in the United States such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as a way to reduce income inequality.
Several studies of sectoral agreements in other countries have found evidence that it reduces inequality and tends to swell in union ranks – with some notable exceptions. However, a number of European studies show that sectoral agreements can reduce profits or productivity for companies. A 2015 study showed that sectoral agreements led to more layoffs during the Great Recession in Europe.
Under current U.S. labor law, genuine sectoral agreements are rare because multiple employers would voluntarily have to voluntarily agree to come to the same bargaining table with workers, said Madland, a researcher at the Center for American Progress. He says the United States achieved this in the automotive industry more than a century ago, and railroad workers benefit from that scheme today.
U.S. “workers, however, can not insist on negotiations between multiple employers,” unlike in other countries, he said.
California’s proposal would cut a state road by instructing a council of 11 members – composed of fast food workers, franchisees and franchisors, and state health, safety and labor officials – to negotiate. The governor and the leaders of the state senate and assembly would appoint the members. Its rules would be revised every three years, and unlike traditional collective bargaining, they would be enforced by government agencies. The laws would apply to any restaurant belonging to a fast food chain with 30 or more franchises.
Opposition from the business community, moderate Democrats
It is a very controversial proposal with opposition from industry, Republicans and a split among Democrats.
Prior to the bill’s failed vote in the June assembly, Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a moderate Democrat from Rancho Cordova, said the power given to an unelected council was an “extremely problematic” precedent that “undermines the rule of law.”
Business groups are also convinced that the government is staying out of private negotiations. They argue that the free market adjusts wages where necessary, citing the fact that many California fast-food restaurants are now raising their wages to $ 17 or $ 18 an hour to attract workers amid a shortage of labor. Republicans said the bill was an example of government abuse that would destroy minimum wage jobs and small businesses. Meanwhile, the coalition of organizations lobbying against the bill, which includes 40 local and ethnic chambers of commerce, launched a website with the slogan “Stop the Takeout Takeover.”
“The people who will pay for Lorena Gonzalez’s initiative are not the ‘evil companies’. It’s the working people who depend on that fast food” for either meals or employment, “said Will Swaim, president of right-wing California Policy Center.
Industry groups also questioned whether the new model is necessary, as California is known for the most stringent labor standards in the country, such as being the first to set the minimum wage at $ 15 and protection against heat illnesses.
“It’s absurd to throw all that out for this test case by a panel,” said Matt Sutton, senior vice president of the California Restaurant Association.
Sutton also said the FAST Recovery Act’s extension of liability to corporate franchisors could increase costs and potentially drive fast food chains out of state. Franchise owners testified in hearings that the bill could change the franchise model, making local owners more regulated by the company and less independent.
“AB 257 would result in me and so many other franchisees losing our autonomy, as the state would essentially deprive us of our identity as business owners and make us fundamental employees of large corporations,” said Michaela Mendelsohn, a franchise owner of several El Pollo Loco restaurants, at a spring hearing.
Gonzalez said she also believes her bill is not the best option. She says the state government should not be in the process of negotiating, and she would rather maintain “a private sector approach to reducing income inequality.” Trade unions, Gonzalez added, are doing a better job of meeting workers’ needs workplace-by-workplace instead of uniform state labor laws that employers fight and the government enforces unevenly.
But given that companies are continuing to fight unionism, Gonzalez said, and the U.S. Congress has stalled on federal labor law reform, the FAST Recovery Act is needed to help workers and, she hopes, encourage more support. to unions.
“Maybe an individual fast food franchisee or restaurant says’ You know what, I’d rather have a conversation with my workers at my workplace, allow them, if they want to, to organize, and not give them what these people are at the state level. is a negotiator, but what the workers in my workplace actually want, ” Gonzalez said. “That would be a great solution.”
For now, Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee, said, however, that where labor organization campaigns have failed in low-wage industries, the government needs to act.
“It’s the only way you can do that in some of these industries,” Kalra said. “Workplace for workplace is almost impossible.”
Fast food workers are protesting
Two McDonald’s workers agreed. At various franchises in California, both helped organize two-week walkouts during the pandemic with support from Fight for $ 15.
Imelda Arroyo earns $ 15.50 an hour at a McDonald’s in Oakland. She has little left for her 7-year-old daughter after paying $ 1,950 in rent. The single mother feels she deserves better pay, health insurance, paid sick leave and “a place where we can explain our concerns” before she has to resort to strikes.
Although “fast food workers like me do not have a union,” Arroyo said, “we at least hope to get something like AB 257.”
Another worker, Imelda Rosales, said her weekly hours were cut from 40 to 27 after protesting against precarious working conditions and unpaid sick leave last winter at a McDonald’s in a small desert town near Palmdale.
The franchise owner, Andrew Marroquin, said the restaurant complied with paid emergency leave for all employees and did not retaliate, but Rosales disputes his claim.
“We have to hurry and fight so the law is passed,” Rosales said. “And then continue (fight) for the union afterwards.”
This article is part of the California Divide Project, a collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.