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California Gains New, First-of-Its-Kind Union to Advocate for Fast-Food Workers

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A crowd of people mostly wearing purple shirts and with a mural in the background celebrate and wave flags.
Crowd participation at the California Fast Food Workers Union membership launch in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2024. (Jules Hotz for CalMatters)

California’s fast-food workers have a new union to advocate for higher pay and safer working conditions, organizers announced Friday.

Thousands of workers statewide will be able to join the California Fast Food Workers Union, an organization that will likely represent a small share of workers but advocate for all fast-food employees in the state.

The organization doesn’t have the same collective bargaining power of traditional unions, but it will be affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, a traditional union that represents workers in various industries and for more than a decade has fought to raise pay at fast-food restaurants. Recently it helped secure a $20-an-hour minimum wage for all fast-food workers in California.

“Today is a historic day in the launching of the first-of-its-kind in the U.S. fast-food workers union,” said Joseph Bryant, international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. “The idea of it is to really build the voices by bringing hundreds and eventually thousands of workers together to be able to make demands, to be able to ensure they are getting treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Workers who join will pay $20 monthly in membership dues.

The union won’t be able to negotiate contracts with individual employers, but it will be able to advocate for better working conditions across the industry through a recently created statewide fast-food council in a process similar to typical union bargaining, organizers said.

Last year the Service Employees International Union won a major victory with the passage of a law that created a fast-food labor council that will set working conditions and standards in California and increase the minimum wage for fast workers to $20 starting in April. The fast-food council will elect representatives and begin meeting by March 15.

State legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint 11 representatives to the council, including fast-food workers and restaurant industry representatives.

Fast-food workers sign up in LA

Hundreds of workers from across the state gathered at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee’s Phoenix Hall on Friday in Los Angeles to learn about their new union, begin the sign-up process and discuss potential priorities.

Workers were enthusiastic about how the union could support them in solving a range of issues they deal with, because they’ve already seen change with their involvement in the national Fight for $15 movement. The Fight for $15 launched in 2012 when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City to demand $15 an hour and union representation.

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In many ways the new union is a formalization of the work the Fight for $15 movement has been doing for years, said Ken Jacobs, co-chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Through Fight for $15, workers advocated for the 2016 law that set California on a path to a  $15 minimum wage and they pushed to create the fast-food council.

“Historically Fight for $15 has used tactics like doing one-day strikes and other actions on employers, as well as pushing for public policy that benefits fast-food workers,” Jacobs said. “I expect the fast-food workers union to do very similar sorts of actions. The change here is to codify this into a membership organization where workers are paying dues. It’s their organization, and they are formally part of the Service Employees International Union.”

This type of union, often called a minority union, is not unusual, he said. Another example of a minority union is the Communication Workers of America’s union for T-Mobile workers, Jacobs said.

But the fast-food workers will have a unique opportunity to implement desired changes through the fast-food council, a mechanism that other minority unions don’t have, he added.

A crowd wearing mostly purple shirts celebrates and applauds.
Workers applaud a panel lead by Joseph Bryant, executive vice president of SEIU, at the California Fast Food Workers Union membership launch in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2024. (Jules Hotz for CalMatters)

Maria Rosalva Najera Lopez, a McDonald’s worker, said the new union is the culmination of years of effort. She said her involvement in organizing with the Fight for $15 campaign had already improved conditions at work, and that with the new union, employers will be less likely to retaliate or push back against employees.

“Finally we’ve accomplished what we’ve been fighting for for so many years,” she said. “That’s what we’re celebrating.”

Chain restaurants are notoriously difficult to unionize because of high employee turnover and because the restaurant corporations are often not direct employers of the workers. Even when restaurants are able to unionize, such as Starbucks stores, corporations often employ delay tactics that make bargaining difficult, like shutting down stores, Jacobs said.

“Is the endgame to build enough power in the industry to try to win collective bargaining, or to build and strengthen the fast-food worker council and ultimately have some form of sectoral bargaining through the state?” Jacobs said.

He said gaining and keeping strong union membership will also be challenging.

Bryant said the union’s goal is simple: to make restaurants safe and sustainable places to work.

“This is an economic justice fight, a racial justice fight,” he said. “We feel today marks a new chapter in being able to lift the standards for so many families throughout California who are primarily Black, Brown and female.”

Restaurants warn of higher costs

Critics say this is a publicity stunt and that the union will struggle to gain members.

Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, called the California Fast Food Workers Union a “face-saving exercise” by the Service Employees International Union. The institute, based in Washington DC, has argued for lower minimum wages.

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The Service Employees International Union “needs something to show for the significant investments it has made in California and nationally, even if this new creation is primarily a lobbying and public relations vehicle,” Saltsman said. “However, it’s unclear who or what this new group speaks for, outside of  Service Employees International Union leadership or the small number of aligned employees.”

Saltsman added, the union ensures the likelihood that at least four seats on the fast-food council — two seats for workers and two for worker representatives — are controlled by the union.

Wage increases for workers will likely lead to higher prices for consumers, said Jeff Hanscom, vice president of state and local government relations for the International Franchise Association, which represents restaurant chains.

“Local restaurant owners are pillars of their communities and proud of their commitment to employees, including the new $20/hour wage increase starting April 1,” he said in a statement. “However, that increase will add about $250,000 to the operating cost of each restaurant. Food prices will have to go up, customers will feel it, and restaurant owners will look for other ways to manage the additional cost while also keeping their small businesses afloat.”

What workers want

Despite a strong turnout at Friday’s event, workers said there’s still a lot more work to do to bring other employees on board because many of their colleagues express fears of retaliation.

“A lot of people are scared,” Lopez said.

Celeste Perez, a Burger King worker in San José, said she signed up to be a union member days ago without thinking twice.

“It’s worth it,” she said. “We don’t have anything: health insurance, paid vacation. We don’t see our loved ones enough. We just work all day.”

Organizers outlined a few priorities for the union: In addition to annual wage increases and seeking better work schedules, the union plans to introduce local ordinances in San José and Los Angeles to strengthen job protections.

A banner that says "Fast Food Justice Ahora [Now]"
A banner outside the California Fast Food Workers Union membership launch in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2024. (Jules Hotz for CalMatters)

Gloria Gonzalez, a Subway employee, said she feels confident the new union will offer strong support and resources.

“If we have violence at work, I know they’re going to support us in the protections we fight for. We have a lot of things we want to accomplish,” she said.

Gonzalez said a priority for her will be consistent wage increases. While she’s grateful for the $20 wage increase, she knows it won’t keep up with the rising cost of living in San José.

But with a formal union, workers said they’re hopeful their hesitant colleagues will sign up too.

“When we started, we were very few,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe people will lose some fear because they see that nothing happens to us when we organize.”

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