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California Bill Would Increase Wages and Protections for Fast Food Workers, Hold Corporations Accountable
Last week, McDonald’s workers in 15 cities led strikes [[link removed]] to demand a $15 companywide minimum wage. Fast food workers make just $11.80 an hour or $24,540 a year [[link removed]] working full-time, on average, making them some of the lowest-paid workers [[link removed]] in America. In California, fast food workers are going a step further. Last month workers [[link removed]] rallied [[link removed]] for the FAST Recovery Act [[link removed]], a California bill that would create a council of labor and business interests to set stronger wages and working conditions across the industry. It would also make fast food brands liable for labor violations at all their independently owned franchises.
By holding parent companies accountable and improving labor standards across the industry, this bill would change the nature of competition in fast food. As it stands, strict franchising contracts push franchisees to make profits by squeezing workers’ wages, benefits, hours, and safety, since many other business decisions are out of their control. Setting comprehensive, worker-informed, industrywide labor standards can especially benefit workers in highly fractured industries with low union density, such as fast food – so long as workers do not lose any labor rights in the process (which a sectoral bargaining proposal for New York gig workers [[link removed]] threatens to do).
Fast food corporations exploit and abuse workers. California fast food workers are some of the lowest paid in the state, averaging $13.27 an hour [[link removed]]. According to the SEIU, more than 70% of these workers are people of color. Scheduling can be unstable for working parents [[link removed]], and fast food workers experience exceptional levels of wage theft [[link removed]] and other labor violations [[link removed]]. Sexual harassment and racism are also rampant, according to worker surveys [[link removed]] and Imelda Rosales, who has worked at McDonald’s in the Los Angeles area for 11 years. “So many fast-food workers are afraid to talk about issues in their stores because they are afraid of retaliation,” Rosales said through a translator. Indeed, one survey of female fast food workers found 70% [[link removed]] suffered consequences for reporting harassment. As the main income provider for her four kids, there have been times when Rosales had to accept any shift McDonald’s offered, take a second job, and work 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week to support her family.
To understand California’s approach to protecting fast food workers, it’s important to remember how the fast food business model works. Massive fast food chains such as McDonald’s or Domino’s pride themselves in their uniformity globally, but most major fast food chains do not own the bulk of their restaurant locations. Some 73% of fast food workers [[link removed]] are employed by franchised chains, meaning independent local business owners hire workers and run the restaurants.
Changes in antitrust law [[link removed]] have allowed franchisors to enact tighter contractual control over their franchisees, bringing into question whether these businesses are truly independent. In a sample of franchise contracts examined by Open Markets Chief Economist Brian Callaci, 95% dictated what products franchisees could sell, 92% set their hours of operation, 83% gave franchisors power to withdraw funds directly from the franchisees’ bank account, and 56% set maximum and minimum prices. On average, food services franchises also buy 63% of their supplies from sources dictated by the parent company.
Under these conditions, Callaci’s research finds that franchisees rely on cutting labor costs to compete with one another. “By removing non-labor variables from the franchisee’s profit-maximizing choice set, vertical restraints compel franchisees to focus on minimizing labor costs and extracting labor effort for their profit margins,” Callaci writes [[link removed]]. Indeed, economic studies [[link removed]] show [[link removed]] that franchised fast food locations offer lower wages and have more labor violations than locations directly owned by the parent company.
The FAST Recovery Act would disrupt this dynamic. For one, it would hold franchisors liable for labor violations at all their franchisees, forcing the mothership to think twice when drafting contracts that incentivize squeezing workers.
The bill would also create a government-sanctioned council of business representatives and workers to set industrywide standards for wages, benefits, safety, scheduling, and other working conditions. The council would update fast food workplace standards at least every three years and allow for temporary emergency standards, such as pandemic safety protocol. It would also host hearings every six months for workers to share stories and forbid retaliation by employers. In addition to getting higher pay and more stable hours, Rosales wants the bill to pass to hold employers accountable for sexual harassment and racism. “We could get respect on the job and protection from things like sexual harassment,” Rosales said. “We would have a place to go.”
New York state raised fast food workers’ minimum wage [[link removed]] through a similar wage-setting board, and Seattle created a multi-stakeholder board that sets labor standards for domestic workers [[link removed]], including independent contractors. “Sectoral councils are really well suited for industries where unions have little or no density and the structure of the industry is heavily fragmented and makes traditional organizing difficult or impossible,” explains David Madland, senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. Only 1.3% [[link removed]] of all restaurant workers are union members, and even if one fast food location could manage to unionize, that wouldn’t prevent the franchise down the block from undercutting them on wages. “The sectoral council can help ensure that we have competition that’s based on productivity and improving the delivery of services, rather than on squeezing workers,” says Madland.
It’s worth noting that not all industry standard-setting efforts are created equal. New York legislators recently introduced [[link removed]] a sectoral bargaining proposal that, on paper, would allow delivery and ride-hailing gig workers to elect unions to negotiate with tech corporations, such as Uber and Instacart, for industrywide wages and benefits.
However, this proposal also requires gig workers to give up several rights, namely, their right to be classified as employees instead of independent contractors. Creating a legal carve out [[link removed]] to permanently classify gig workers as contractors bars these workers from engaging in collective bargaining directly. The bill would also prevent workers from being paid for time spent looking for rides (undermining the value of any minimum wage unions may negotiate). The proposal also includes a no-strike clause and replaces existing state-level unemployment insurance with portable benefits that could be less generous [[link removed]], among many other issues raised by critics.
By contrast, the FAST Recovery Act in California does not preclude fast food workers from forming a union to bargain for benefits beyond the standards set by the sectoral council. The council also would not take away any existing workers’ protections and benefits. The bill has already been passed [[link removed]] by the California Assembly Judiciary, Labor and Employment, and Appropriations Committees and awaits floor votes in the Assembly and Senate.
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Tweet [link removed] Share [[link removed]] Forward [link removed] Written by Claire Kelloway
Edited by Phil Longman and LaRonda Peterson.
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