The Struggle for $15 Is Transferring Past the Minimal Wage With a Daring New Concept

“Since the pandemic, workers have known they need a seat at the table,” says Allynn Umel, the national coordinator of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight for $15. Since 2012, the union has supported the “Fight for $15” — named after the proposed new minimum wage — to organize fast-food workers. During the pandemic alone, Umel says, workers have filed hundreds of complaints with regulators about unsafe working conditions, unfair treatment, or both. In a recent opinion poll
of Los Angeles County fast-food workers conducted by the UCLA Labor Center, a quarter of those surveyed said they had complained to a manager. Of those who complained, a quarter faced some form of retaliation, including pay cuts, threats and harassment.

The litany of complaints and the lukewarm response from regulators have prompted the SEIU to rally behind new legislation that could give fast-food workers a lasting voice in government — one that could also empower them in the workplace.

If passed, California’s AB 257, commonly known as the “FAST Recovery Act,” will create an 11-member “Sector Council” to set standards for wages, training and working conditions for fast-food restaurants, part of a chain of 30 or more locations nationwide. While four of the council’s 11 members would come from the state’s health and labor boards, two seats would be reserved for the fast-food workers themselves, and two more for workers’ “supporters” such as lawyers or union representatives. The last two seats would be reserved for the industry itself: one representing fast-food corporations (such as McDonald’s Corporation and Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) and one for the franchisees who own their restaurants . But far from creating a distanced observer of industry wrongdoing, the bill would also require state regulators to crack down on any individual company the council deems violating its standards. It’s a model that has precedent in Europe, where “sectoral collective bargaining” is a common means of enforcing labor rights for workers across an industry, regardless of their employer.

California is a natural place to test a novel approach to regulating fast food. In the postwar years, an affinity for public investment enabled the lightning-fast conversion of much of the state’s deserts and farmland to suburbs, paving the way for the first restaurant chains to focus exclusively on car-bound customers, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr, Taco Bell, In -N-Out and Jack in the Box – all of which opened their first locations in the state’s redesigned landscapes. Decades later, a propensity for government participation is now registering in the form of veto-proof Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, making it possible to enact the kind of ambitious legislation that progressives in the US Congress can only dream of. AB 257 was considered last year, fail
by just three votes, but if an amended version is likely to come to a vote this week, it’s likely to sail through the state legislature. (Under lawmakers’ rules, the House of Commons must vote on the bill by the end of the month for it to pass this year.) A strong network of activists across California has also made the state a frontline for the fast-food labor movement. In 2016, Fight For $15 activists secured the first $15 national minimum wage.

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