California law that strips fast-food bosses of wage-setting power sparks brawl

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LOS ANGELES — A one-of-a-kind California law that gives an unelected council unprecedented power over wages and working conditions at fast-food restaurants is sparking a backlash, with wealthy business and restaurant groups attacking influential state unions in an effort to overthrow him.

Unions are preparing to fight back, calling the new law the most important victory for organized labor in a generation and vowing to do whatever it takes to protect it. “This is a watershed moment in the history of the labor movement,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.

But the measure has drawn a backlash from national business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, who want the law overturned. The groups have watched with suspicion as California instituted a series of worker protections in recent years, setting itself as a national model. Opponents and outside experts are already predicting that other Democratic-controlled states could try to follow California’s lead with the fast food panel, adding fuel to the escalating national battle over workers’ rights. .

“We are seeing a huge wave of worker organizing efforts across the country and this is another way I think workers can have their voices heard and be directly involved in raising standards in the workplace. ‘industry,” said Christina Chung, executive director of the Center for Law and Labor at the University of California at Berkeley Law School. “It’s really exciting, and I think other states will follow.”

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The California measure would effectively upend the power structure between workers and their bosses, allowing wages to be set by a 10-member council made up of fast-food workers, restaurant owners and others, most of them selected by the governor. The council would be empowered to pass sweeping changes, including raising California’s minimum wage from $15 an hour to $22 an hour for hundreds of thousands of mostly non-union workers across the state.

Although Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has already signed the legislation, the law will be suspended if opponents collect enough signatures – as expected – to win a proposal overturning it in the 2024 ballot.

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The developments come as the pandemic, coupled with inflation, has forced workers, employers and policymakers to rethink the employment landscape in the country in myriad ways. Along with some other states, California has also passed a far-reaching salary transparency law that will take effect next year and will require employers to include salary ranges in job postings, and also – for businesses with 100 or more workers – to report median wages by race and gender. Fast food legislation could be California’s most revolutionary step yet.

At the same time, Congress has failed to pass priority legislation for unions — a bill called the Pro Act that would protect labor organizing — and with Republicans looking set to regain control of the House, the door is closing. will likely close on Capitol Hill for any pro-worker bill for at least the next two years. That means unions have nowhere to look but friendly state legislatures or local governments if they want to push their agenda.

The board created by the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, or Fast Recovery Act, which Newsom signed into law on Labor Day, would be empowered to set new rules on wages, working conditions, safety standards and other problems in the thousands of fast food. restaurants in California. The council would include representatives from business groups and restaurateurs, as well as trade unions and individual workers. But because all members would be appointed by the governor or Democratic legislative leaders, business groups are confident this would end up being an automatic buffer for union demands.

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More importantly, according to proponents and opponents of the law, council operations would amount to a radical departure from the way wages and working conditions are currently set in this country. Typically, unionized workers work under contracts negotiated between unions and management, while in non-unionized workplaces, managers simply make the decisions.

California law sets up an entirely new system, similar to some European countries, with a government-appointed board that makes binding decisions on many key issues. Proponents and some outside observers say such a system is badly needed, especially after the pandemic revealed unsafe working conditions at some fast food outlets where workers were sometimes forced to come to work sick or unwell. appropriate protective equipment.

“That was always the next step on the minds of the workers is how are we going to win the union part of our journey and create a permanent organization where we can fight against sexual harassment, wage theft, burns to the arms, the lack of training and mobility,” said SEIU’s Henry.

She said the change needed cannot happen “if we tried a very traditional way of organizing ourselves under what we see as outdated, racist and sexist labor laws where we would go one store at a time and would try to negotiate with a franchisee who does not really have the power to increase wages or change conditions because the economic decisions are made in the headquarters of the multinationals.

Business groups dispute claims of widespread labor violations, pointing to an industry-funded study purporting to show the fast-food industry is no worse than other industries and better than many at theft wages and violations of labor law. They argue the council is actually a backdoor attempt by organized workers to get what amount to union contracts in place in an industry it has largely failed to organize. They warn food prices would rise by up to 20% if the law goes into effect – a labor-aligned academic dispute – and fewer jobs for California workers as would-be store franchise owners conclude that ‘they can’t do business in the state.

“It’s really about unions trying to grow their market share in the restaurant industry,” said Matthew Haller, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association, adding that “the premise on which the law was built does not stand up to the facts.”

“We weren’t dealing with facts, we were dealing with politics, and of course the unions have a lot of friends in California and ultimately a lot of people take orders from them, not necessarily listening to the consequences of what it’s going to do. do for food prices and franchisors’ ability to operate in California, Haller said.

Opponents, who have already spent millions opposing the law, say they are on track to collect the required 623,212 signatures they must submit by December 5 to secure a proposal overturning the law. legislation in the upcoming statewide ballot.

The supporters do not wait to fight. Tuesday fast food workers and sympathizers From top to bottom, the SEIU-organized state staged protests outside fast-food restaurants in an attempt to draw attention to their cause and protest their opponents’ efforts to overturn the new law.

‘I don’t think it’s right’ for corporate groups to try to overturn the law, said Maria Bernal, 43, who has worked at Jack in the Box in Sacramento for 10 years and was at Tuesday’s protest. . Putting the law in place, she said, “is an emergency”.

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