Fast-Food Workers Might Finally Get Some Power in California After Years of Disrespect

A new bill would give fast-food workers a seat at the table setting labor standards.

Rosalia Manuel Luna began working at McDonald’s when she was 17 years old. 

Twenty-three years later, on July 8 this year, she was fired from her job. Luna alleges she was let go was in retaliation for speaking up in defense of a co-worker who was allegedly being sexually harassed as well as for her own dispute with McDonald’s over quarantine wages, which got her involved in the Fight for $15 and a Union, the SEIU-aligned movement of food and retail workers that’s been instrumental in improving local and state minimum wage and other labor laws around the country over the past decade. 

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The now ex-shift manager still hasn’t found another job, and she grew emotional while speaking about her current situation. 

“It’s been very hard for me and my family. Now they left me without a job,” Luna told VICE News via a translator. “They don’t know or understand the consequences. They’ve left me without a salary, and now I can’t pay my bills or rent.” 

In a statement obtained through McDonald’s corporate offices, the franchise’s owner/operator Lee Ann Freeman told VICE News that Luna’s claims of retaliation and harassment are “false. My organization is committed to providing a safe and respectful workplace, and we do not tolerate harassment or retaliation of any kind.”

But while it’s too late to save her job, Luna believes that a bill pending final legislative approval in California will give workers in similar situations stronger protections, and fast-food workers in general a more active role in determining standards in an industry infamous for mistreating workers. 

The bill, AB 257, would pave the way for a Fast Food Council, comprising workers and union representatives, as well as fast-food corporations and franchisees and state officials. If the bill is signed into law and 10,000 California fast-food workers sign a petition in support of creating the council, the council would mandate working conditions within the industry, including wages, hours, health and safety standards, and “the right to be free from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”

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The fast-food industry and other business interests have thrown the full force of their lobbying efforts into defeating the bill. The National Restaurant Association warned that success would mean that other bills could follow in states like New York and Oregon and that it was “imperative for the industry to focus its efforts” on California, Vox reported earlier this month

The bill is also opposed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Department of Finance, and Newsom himself has been silent on whether he’d sign or veto the bill if it hits his desk. He’ll be forced to choose soon, however: The proposal passed the California Senate on Monday, and is expected to receive final legislative approval from the state Assembly Tuesday.

The legislation has the potential to transform the worker-employer relationship in the fast-food industry, and advocates—like the corporations fighting the bill—believe its impacts could stretch out beyond California and even the fast-food industry. 

But for workers like Luna, the intended impact—to put California’s fast-food employees on equal footing with their bosses in determining standards—would be enough. 

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“We’re fighting so that people like myself who stayed silent out of fear of retaliation have a place where our voices can be listened to, and where we can fight for all of our rights.”

“They’re gaslighting you”

The fast-food industry has long been used as a cudgel by conservatives and business interests who’ve argued for lower wages and other labor standards. High schoolers “flipping burgers,” so the argument goes, don’t deserve livable wages or the same labor standards as other professions. Studies show the vast majority of fast-food workers are not teenagers, and that fast-food workers’ duties include much more than that, according to restaurants’ own job descriptions (also, high schoolers deserve fair treatment on the job).

But fast-food work has also become synonymous with rampant worker exploitation. The SEIU-backed advocacy group Fight for $15 released a survey of fast-food workers in California earlier this year, in which 85 percent of workers said they’d experienced at least one form of wage theft while working in fast-food restaurants. In 2020, McDonald’s settled $26 million wage-theft lawsuit with more than 30,000 California workers at corporate-owned stores in 2020, for violations dating back to 2013.

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Luna told VICE News that she first became involved with the Fight for $15 after she had trouble getting McDonald’s to pay her for quarantining, a violation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into federal law in 2020. (As of August 2020, owners of six McDonald’s franchises and nearly 700 companies total had been cited for violating the law, according to a 2020 Center for Public Integrity report.)

“I got paid for my quarantine time, but I got a call from my supervisor, and that’s when he said he didn’t want third parties speaking for me,” Luna said. (Management typically refers to unions as “third parties” that attempt to drive a wedge between employer and employee, rather than the voice of workers themselves.) 

“That’s when they started reducing some of my hours… when I brought it up to the store manager, they said they had enough labor and needed to reduce hours. But everyone else had their same schedules and some were working six days out of the week.”

Workers have also alleged that the industry is rife with sexual harassment. Last year, McDonald’s workers across the country participated in a one-day walkout in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment, and in July, a franchise owner of 10 McDonald’s franchises in Vermont and New England settled for $1.6 million after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Vermont sued over claims a store manager had groped workers, including teenagers.

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Sandro Flores told VICE News that he’s worked at three Carl’s Jr locations in California over the last five years. Flores, who is gay, says he’s been subjected to homophobic harassment from co-workers, including name calling, and said that one of his peers once threw a hamburger at him.

But rather than resolving the harassment, Flores says, management has retaliated against him by cutting his hours and even transferring him to other locations that are farther away from where he lives. During rush hour, he says, it can take him up to an hour to get to work. 

“When you try to speak to management about it, it’s a sense of retaliation, that it’s your fault. They’re gaslighting you,” Flores said. “This is a story you hear with many workers that want to try to speak up, it’s the fear of retaliation and that they’re going to get punished for speaking up.” 

Workers at the restaurant went on strike earlier this month in support of Flores. 

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CKE Restaurant Holdings, Carl’s Jr’s parent company, did not respond to a request for comment on Flores’ claims Monday. 

A ‘radical proposal’

At the federal level, there’s little recourse for even unionized workers who’ve alleged retaliation—only back pay, or lost wages, and reinstatement to the position. “In an unfair labor practice case, the only monetary damages the [NLRB] can possibly order is back pay,” Jeff Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law, told VICE News earlier this year.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO Act), a bill that would overhaul federal labor law in favor of workers for the first time in decades, passed the House last year with nearly unanimous Democratic support. But it has stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and provisions in Build Back Better strengthening enforcement of labor law violations were stripped out of the Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed earlier this month.

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With almost no movement in Congress—even the federal minimum wage hasn’t risen in more than a decade—the onus has been on progressive local and state governments to improve standards for their own workers, says Ken Jacobs, the chair of the Labor Center at University of California, Berkeley.

“The state and local level is where much of the policy innovation has taken place. Many of the kinds of standards laws we’ve seen spread started at the city level, then spread to other cities and eventually states,” Jacobs said.

The Fast Food Council created by California’s AB 257 would, after amendments from the Senate passed last week, comprise 10 members, appointed by the Governor and state legislative leaders. Two of those members would be fast-food workers, another two would be representatives of “advocates” for fast-food employees, two each would be fast-food franchisors and franchisees, and two more would be state-level bureaucrats. Rules and regulations would need a simple majority of six votes to pass.

An earlier version of the bill would have made the corporation that owns the brand “responsible for ensuring its franchisee complies” with state labor laws, and “jointly and severally liable for any penalties or fines for the violation.” The version passed by the Senate stripped this provision, but the amended version allows the state Labor Commissioner to issue citations and file civil actions against corporations as well as franchisees.

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If Newsom signs the legislation into law, the council would be tasked setting a “minimum standard” for fast-food workers in terms of wages, maximum hours of worker, and “other working conditions” including health, safety, and anti-harassment and discrimination protections.

Though domestic workers in Seattle have a similar board, the California Fast Food Council would be the first of its kind at the state level in the country, and would more closely resemble the sectoral bargaining that’s common in Europe, as Bloomberg Law reported earlier this month

“Overall, it creates a framework where fast-food workers will have a strong voice in establishing the conditions under which they work,” Jacobs told VICE News. “SEIU and others have been talking about working on various forms of sectoral bargaining, and this effectively is a form of sectoral bargaining using public institutions.”

Big business has almost uniformly lined up against the bill. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it a “radical proposal to manage the fast-food industry.” Even after the amendments weakening some of the most pro-labor provisions in the bill, the California Chamber of Commerce described the bill Monday as “highly problematic,” and giving an “unelected” body “overly broad” powers. 

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It’s also likely that opponents of the bill will attempt to challenge it via either the courts or a ballot measure akin to Proposition 22, which repealed a law designating app-based delivery and rideshare drivers as employees as opposed to independent contractors. 

“They’ve been rattling their sabers, saying that if we prevail in the California legislature they’re going to figure out a way to block it,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said at a Monday press conference in response to a question from VICE News. 

“This is an opportunity for franchisees to link arms with their frontline workers and to make good jobs… we’re going to use the continued organizing and advocacy to help them come to their senses and see how much sense this makes for their own interests as well.” 

Republican state Sen. Brain Dahle, one of just nine Republicans out of 40 members in the Senate, said during the floor debate Monday that there are “no slaves working for California businesses,” and said the bill is “setting up another bureaucracy so that in a few years we have a unionized workforce.” Another Republican state senator, Shannon Grove, claimed that McDonald’s representatives came to her office and said it would entirely leave the state of California—where the first McDonald’s restaurant was founded—if the bill was signed into law. 

But the amendments last week won over key holdouts such as state Sen. Dave Min, a Democrat from Orange County whom workers had lobbied. Though Min said the bill “has given me a fair amount of indigestion,” he added that his “major concerns have been satisfied” and that the bill is “transformative.” 

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State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said that the bill would also give workers a voice in making their workplaces safer from violence. “It is no exaggeration that giving workers in this industry a seat at the table and a voice in setting the rules can be a matter of life and death,” Kamlager said, saying there have been more than 100,000 911 calls from fast-food workers over the past three years  “because of threats of violence.” 

Newsom, fresh off a resounding victory in an attempt to recall him earlier this year, has attempted to increase his national profile as a progressive governor in recent months. He’s taken out ads against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, fueling speculation he’s planning an eventual run for president. 

But Newsom has clashed with labor in the past, including the building trades. He also vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections, and after the United Farm Workers led a 300-plus mile march across California to the state capital of Sacramento in support of another version of the bill, Newsom said last week he couldn’t support the bill in its current form. (The state Senate passed a new version of the bill on Monday, saying it satisfied Newsom’s concerns.) 

Newsom’s office declined to reveal its position Monday. “We don’t typically comment on pending legislation,” a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement. “The Governor will evaluate the bill on its merits if it reaches his desk.”

Flores said that becoming financially “vulnerable” due to his reduction in hours has pushed him to fight for more protections. “I don’t even have savings, my car barely had an accident, and I don’t even have the money [to fix] it,” he told VICE News. “And even then I prefer to go out and protest and try to do something, because to not do anything is to be complacent, and it’s not possible to live with what we have right now.”

Flores said he believes Newsom is “almost there,” but that more pressure is needed for the governor to “do the right thing,” or sign the bill into law. 

“It’s nice to have a reminder from time to time.” 

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Tagged:

McDonald's, California, fight for 15, sexual harassment, minimum wage, unions, fast food workers

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