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California creates first industry-wide labor council for fast food employees

Critics ripped the law as terrible for eateries already struggling with high food and labor costs and a neverending pandemic.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a one-of-a-kind labor bill giving the state's 550,000 fast food workers a seat at the table and bargaining power. Enacted on Labor Day, the Fast Food Standards and Accountability Recovery Act goes beyond unionizing and into government regulation. 

Assembly Bill 257 creates a 10-member labor council made up of government officials, franchise owners, store owners and employees. The law requires the council to review wages, safety, health and employment standards at least every three years. Employees are now protected from retaliation and discrimination and have a voice in minimum wages and maximum hours. The bill caps the minimum wage at $22 through 2023. 

"California is committed to ensuring that the men and women who have helped build our world-class economy are able to share in the state's prosperity," said Newsom in a statement. "Today's action gives hardworking fast-food workers a stronger voice and seat at the table to set fair wages and critical health and safety standards across the industry."

Workers have been fighting for higher wages and speaking out against sexual harassment, racism and unsafe working conditions. Over 300 walk-out strikes across the state have taken place since Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, introduced AB 257 almost two years ago. The protests were aided by Fight for 15 and the Service Employees International Union

At a strike in the Sacramento suburb of Folsom in November 2021, workers walked out of a Jack in the Box and protested in the drive-thru lane. The strike came after managers threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the employees if they didn't continue to work after clocking out and made comments that the female employees were "on menopause" after they requested the store air conditioning to be fixed during heat waves. Workers told stories of the conditions they faced, including a Burger King employee who was told to put mustard on a fryer burn injury since the store had no first-aid supplies. 

The bill has been heavily opposed by franchise owners, fast food companies and the California Restaurant Association. A movement dubbed Stop AB 257 has been fighting to squash the bill, arguing it is the "wrong time" for businesses to have higher operating costs. In addition, the group states that the labor council will hurt small businesses the most, despite the law only applying to chains with over 100 locations. 

"Economists say it could drive up the cost of eating at a quick service restaurant in California by 20% at a time when Americans already face soaring costs in supermarkets and at gas pumps. California is my birth state and it's hard to watch it earn its reputation for driving businesses out of the state," said McDonald's President Joe Erlinger in an open letter.

Erlinger added the law should "raise alarm bells" across the country and called it "lopsided, hypocritical, and ill-considered," but said he welcomes productive dialogue and legislation that raises wages and improves safety in the workplace. 

Holden said he is proud of the work and effort that has made AB 257 possible as a former Subway franchisee and said the bill levels the playing field and promotes "industry-wide collaboration." 

"Ten years after 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City and galvanized an international movement of workers demanding $15/hr and union rights, the passage of AB 257 is the most significant advance in workers' fight for fairness on the job in a generation," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union in a statement

Unions, labor advocacy groups, workers, and elected officials have taken to Twitter to show their support for the new law. 

"If you see me crying today it's (because) I'm completely filled with joy. 550k+ fast food workers finally got their seat at the table to set their working conditions," wrote SEIU California executive drector Tia Orr on Twitter. "Did you feel that? #AB257 is the power of collective action. Thanks to my brother @ChrisHoldenNews, we're rewriting outdated, racist and sexist labor laws that shut these workers out. NOT ANYMORE," said another one of Orr's tweets. 

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