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State Assembly Backs New Council to Oversee Fast Food Industry

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A person holds a sign in front of a McDonald's restaurant that says, 'Unions for All,'
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'Unions for All' outside a McDonald's restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland during a Black Lives Matter protest on July 20, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Legislation empowering a new state council to set wages and working standards for California’s fast food restaurants passed the state Assembly on Monday, a major milestone for supporters of the controversial plan to increase oversight of the historically low-wage industry.

Staring down a Monday deadline to act, lawmakers voted 41-19, largely along party lines, to send Assembly Bill 257, or the Fast Food Accountability and Standards (FAST) Recovery Act, to the state Senate.

“Despite the fast food industry’s rapid growth in California’s private sector, employees’ wages continue to reflect some of the lowest in the state,” said Assemblymember Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, the bill’s author.

While California’s powerful labor unions have won recent state and local minimum wage hikes for the lowest-wage workers, the fast food industry has fought off attempts at unionization, preventing workers from making further wage and workplace gains through collective bargaining.

“They can’t even get to a place, because it’s a fragmented industry, to where they can organize and have a labor union,” said Holden. “If you did, then you have that protection, you have someone to muscle in and say, ‘Franchisors, you’re not treating me right.'”


In acknowledgement of those challenges, the bill would create an 11-member council to set sector-wide wages, safety protocols and employment standards for fast food restaurants with 30 or more locations nationwide.

The council would include representatives from state agencies, fast food corporations and franchisees, along with workers and their advocates — all appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

In June, the bill hit a bipartisan wall, as eight Democrats joined 18 Republican members of the Assembly in opposition, while 13 other Democrats didn’t vote.

On Monday, as the bill passed without a vote to spare, a handful of Democrats remained opposed to it, resistant to the idea of handing an unelected commission the reigns to regulate an entire industry.

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“I just don’t think having a separate set of regulations for the fast food industry is the way to do it,” said Assemblymember Bill Quirk, D-Hayward. “Why should franchise workers make more than a dishwasher at a sit-down restaurant or a child care worker? Or a maid at a hotel?”

Other opponents, like Assemblymember Kelly Seyarto, R-Murrieta, took aim at a provision in the bill that would hold corporations like McDonald’s and Burger King jointly liable with local franchisees for violations found at workplaces in the state.

“Franchisors will simply not grant businesses to franchisees in California,” Seyarto said. “And you will see some of the most popular franchises grow in other areas and wonder why California doesn’t get to have those.”

But changes to the proposal in recent days seemed to win over previous opponents, such as Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, including scrapping a provision that would have allowed the council to subpoena restaurants for information on health and safety protocols.

And ultimately, most Democrats in the Assembly agreed that California’s fast food workers are particularly vulnerable, and their industry requires special attention from state regulators.

“Fast food workers were always essential and the pandemic has brought that more into stark relief as they’ve continued to serve our communities through a global pandemic,” said Assemblymember Mia Bonta, D-Oakland.

Surveys from the UCLA Labor Center show that the state’s fast food workers, the vast majority of whom are people of color, experience high rates of COVID-19 exposure, wage theft and health and safety hazards.

“By standing together fearlessly and sharing their stories, fast food workers prevailed in today’s Assembly vote over a powerful industry lobby defending inequality and exploitation,” said Alexandra Suh, co-chair of the California Coalition for Worker Power and executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, in a statement after the vote.

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