Urban Wire California Gave Fast Food Workers a Voice in Shaping Wages. How Can Other States Do the Same?
Lauren Fung, Rodrigo Garcia
Display Date

.

Fast food restaurants in the United States employ more than 4.5 million people, and that number is only growing. In California, more than half a million fast food workers—who are more likely to be women and Latinx people—face a precarious industry. Difficult working conditions are well documented, with nearly two-thirds of fast food workers in Los Angeles experiencing wage theft and nearly half experiencing injury and workplace harassment.

Because of these poor conditions, California legislators, labor organizers, and fast food companies have negotiated to create better working conditions in the fast food industry, with California governor Gavin Newsom signing Assembly Bill 1228 into law on September 28, 2023. As of April 2024, AB 1228 will raise fast food workers’ minimum wages to $20 per hour at restaurants with at least 60 nationwide locations, such as McDonald’s, KFC, and In-N-Out. The law also creates a nine-person Fast Food Council consisting of workers, labor advocates, and restaurant owners to advise on further wage increases through 2029 and make recommendations on working conditions.

The passage of the AB 1228 aligns with recent statements from labor unions and organizations including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and UAW on expanding plans to organize across sectors and focus resources on supporting proworker legislation. AB 1228 meaningfully increases wages in the fast food industry, and the Fast Food Council institutionalizes worker voice in the wage-setting process. There is still more work to be done, however, to ensure workers have a meaningful seat at the table. With public support for unions at a historic high, state and local governments can learn from AB 1228 to support sectorwide labor councils and legislation that make it easier for workers to engage in collective action.

How sector-level labor legislation and industry boards can support workers

AB 1228 comes during a charged moment for organized labor in the US. High-profile mobilizations of health care workers, writers and actors, and autoworkers reflect a resurging wave of labor organizing across industries.

California is a historic stronghold for collective action, with a minimum wage among the highest in the country at $16 per hour and a surge of strikes and walkouts having occurred in recent months. Still, unions have faced a decades-long decline since the 1950s when union membership peaked at a third of the US workforce. In 2022, US unionization rates dropped to 10.1 percent (PDF), with the food services sector among the least unionized at only 1.4 percent.

Although unionization offers workers a voice on the job, weak labor laws mean the process of winning a union is often lengthy and difficult. Workers attempting to unionize frequently face retaliation, surveillance, and intimidation from employers. In addition, labor law in the US is defined by union drives at individual workplaces, instead of sector-level organizing.

By providing minimum-wage guardrails, AB 1228 will improve material conditions for fast food workers across the industry. Sector-level legislation is elusive, so AB 1228’s wage increases are among the first statewide wage minimums for specific economic sectors. The bill’s labor council also creates a legal mechanism to integrate worker voice in wage setting across the entire sector, which will affect most fast food workers, even those who are not unionized.

Industry boards that include worker representatives and their employers are gaining traction across the country and have been implemented in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Seattle at the city level and in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, and New York at the state level. These bodies convene worker and industry representatives to regulate working conditions.

California’s Fast Food Council can only make recommendations, not binding decisions, but this model still enables workers to play a larger part in shaping their working conditions. Further, this act may have spillover effects that increase the wages of service workers in other industries, and it provides a path for other workers to advocate for labor councils.

Increased wages are a start, but more could be done to support workers

Although the creation of the Fast Food Council is an important step forward for workers, an agreement that would hold franchisees accountable for labor violations was removed during the negotiations around AB 1228. Franchising is a type of fissuring, which creates a layer of separation between employees and the corporations setting their working conditions. This model has well-documented negative effects on workers across industries, such as security and farm work.

Despite the benefits AB 1228 will provide workers, the larger power dynamics in fast food workplaces remain stacked against workers. Increased wages do not improve industry problems with wage theft, harassment, and precarity, nor does AB 1228 give workers more ownership of their work or respect on the job. The fast food industry in California exemplifies what state and local policymakers can do to ensure workers are fairly represented in decisionmaking about their wages and working conditions. Strategies those policymakers should consider include the following:

  • Support sectorwide labor councils that integrate worker voice into wage setting and working conditions, and pursue laws that convene employers and workers to create and apply work standards.
  • Pursue sectorwide wage setting across industries to avoid potential wage undercutting at nonunionized workplaces.
  • Make collective action easier by revoking right-to-work laws and strengthening protections for striking workers and collective bargaining.

While AB 1228 is a good step forward, state and local policymakers can go further to empower workers and support better working conditions for all.

Body

Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Research Areas Workforce
Tags Economic well-being Employment Employment and income data Job markets and labor force Job quality and workplace standards Work supports Worker voice, representation, and power Workers in low-wage jobs Workplace and industry studies Workplace protections Building America’s Workforce
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Related content