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Fast food is a product of Southern California with strong ties to San Diego. Ray Kroc retired here in the 1970s after purchasing McDonald’s and expanding the company’s reach with the promise of quick service and meals made in a factory-like setting.
Jack in the Box took those innovations a step further by creating, with the help of a La Jolla architect, a highly efficient restaurant that catered to motorists and, like McDonald’s, could be replicated on a global scale. It became known as the “modern food machine.”
But as efficient as those restaurants remain today, they’re also a source of agitation for the workers inside.
Last week, dozens of people demonstrated outside the headquarters of Jack in the Box in Kearny Mesa for union representation and better pay and conditions. Against a cloudy sky, politicians, activists and employees from an array of fast-food businesses spoke of their struggles to pay rent and chided executives who lived comfortably in McMansions while riding out the pandemic on Zoom.
As a group of mostly Black and brown protesters stepped forward to block traffic, San Diego police officers declared an unlawful assembly and threatened in both English and Spanish to use chemical agents and other weapons.
While officers were identifying and processing 14 of the protesters who’d blocked the roadway, Karina Zuñiga, a 42-year-old cook and cashier at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in National City, told me that supporting a family on minimum wage has been tough.
She was inspired to demonstrate after learning not from her manager but from other activists that she’d been entitled an extra 10-minute break for years. “I didn’t know I had the right until I got involved,” she said through a translator. “That’s when my eyes were opened.”
When reached by phone, a manager at the KFC declined an interview and hung up.
San Diego has seen a burst of energy over the last year as workers in several sectors take advantage of the tight labor market. Hotel workers are using drivers of economic prosperity like Comic Con to get what they want. A well-timed strike could deny the city tourism taxes — which gives the union powerful leverage.
Leverage like that is hard to generate in the fast-food industry, where both the grub and the bodies are cheap. Over the last decade, there have been countless strikes in major metros across the country, but the workers have little to show for it. The demonstrations have generated a ton of press, but it hasn’t led to widespread unionization.
The walk-offs and grievances have only intensified in recent months. In Northern California, workers have complained about overheating, being forced to work while sick and being met with threats of deportation.
A Jack in the Box spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that the company requires the owners of individual restaurants to comply with federal, state and local health and safety rules, and is “actively investigating the concerns raised.”
Bad as some of the stories were, organizing in the fast-food space remains difficult. Whereas other unions benefit from having a certified workforce, fast-food production is standardized and relatively simple. Employees are meant to be interchangeable, and they’re more likely to leave than dig in for a long fight and collective bargaining unit.
Fast food restaurant owners constantly remind us they operate on razor-thin margins yet they can easily replace people. That is, they could in normal times. The pandemic has made it harder to find people willing to work for minimum wage in such stressful conditions.
That’s why some of the workers are turning instead to the California Legislature and raising awareness of AB 257, a bill initially written by former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. If signed into law, it would establish a Fast Food Sector Council within the Department of Industrial Relations to promulgate minimum standards on wages, working conditions and training.
Crucially, the bill as it’s currently written would make companies like Jack in the Box liable for any violations that incur inside the business that bears their name. Advocates see this as an important provision because the fast-food chains tend to distance themselves from problems on the ground.
A company like McDonald’s exerts control over the menu, but burgers are not its primary interest.
As Kroc once reportedly told a class of graduate students: “My business is real estate.” A Kroc biopic in 2016 puts a similar quote in the mouth of the company’s first president and CEO. Regardless of who actually said it, the underlying principle remains: The way to turn a serious profit in the fast-food industry is by buying land and leasing it to the franchise owner, who provides the corporation with a steady stream of revenue in the form of rent.
Speaking to the protesters last week, Gonzalez said the executives she’s talked to about AB 257 either deny the stories they hear from workers or shift the blame to whoever actually owns the franchise.
“Corporate greed has gone far enough,” she told the crowd. “All we’re asking for is a seat at the table so they have to address the very real issues that workers face every day. Is that too much to ask for? Is that revolutionary? They haven’t even begun to see what revolutionary looks like.”
The myths around the fast-food industry should be familiar at this point: The pay is low because it’s intended for teenagers, not a professional class. Anyone who’s ever been to a demonstration or simply walked inside a fast-food restaurant rather than use the drive-thru knows better, though. They’ll see people of all ages.
One of the biggest complaints from people inside the industry is about scheduling. Often, workers have to keep their calendars clear because they could be called in. It’s a common practice and business leaders say it’s crucial to keeping costs down and the doors open. But workers end up giving up time that could be spent making money somewhere else.
“What you’re doing is saying, now this person who has to devote hours of their life to you without pay,” said Daniel Enemark, senior economist at the San Diego Workforce Partnership, who advocates for ending on-call scheduling within certain wage brackets. “It’s literally just a transfer of risk and ultimately of income and wealth.”
San Diego City Councilman Raul Campillo was working on an ordinance to rein in on-call scheduling, but his chief of staff, Michael Simonsen, confirmed that Campillo has set it aside.
Even the perception of fast-food restaurants as the epitome of a mom-and-pop small business is misleading. The largest Jack in the Box franchisee is Anil Yadav, who got his start as a fry cook in the Bay Area, but as of 2021 owned more than 200 Jack in the Box restaurants. He owned an additional 310 “units” between Taco Cabana, Denny’s, TGI Fridays, El Pollo Loco, Sizzler, Marco’s Pizza and Corner Bakery.
Yadav told Buzzfeed News in April that worker dissatisfaction caught him off guard because he’d never witnessed it during his three decades in the business. He said he took any complaint against his managers seriously.
As the writer and historian Thomas Frank has illustrated, the fast food restaurant is an impressive feat of engineering, but it squeezes the people on the assembly line and produces a lot of waste offsite in the form of trash and fuel consumption. It also heavily relies on governments to sustain its profits through agricultural subsidies, irrigation projects, road and highway construction, and more.
In January, researchers at UCLA released a report showing that households with fast food workers were more likely than others to fall below the federal poverty line. Most were enrolled in a public assistance program, costing taxpayers $1.2 billion annually.
More than half of the workers surveyed for the study said their employers had not paid them for overtime or meal breaks or they had to buy uniforms without reimbursement. More than half said they’d experienced a health and safety hazard on the job. Others had seen or experienced violence or harassment.
Zuñiga, the KFC worker, told me that she refuses to take public assistance even though it would help. She’d prefer to get a paycheck that covers basic needs.
But when fast food workers have joined together to raise this point in the past, they’ve been met with threats that robots can and will take their jobs. In 2013, a conservative think tank with ties to the fast food industry took out a full-page ad telling workers that their battle wasn’t with management — it was with technology.
Lawmakers revived and passed AB 257 in the Assembly earlier this year after shelving it last summer. It popped up Monday at the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee, where workers and organizers argued that the state’s enforcement arm isn’t working and local operators are cutting employees to the bone.
Dozens of trade groups, chambers and franchise owners made essentially the same series of points in response: The Fast Food Sector Council would give unelected people too much regulatory authority, existing labor law is sufficient to crack down on bad actors, and the bill will raise prices and lead to a reduction in the overall workforce.
Jesse Lara, an area manager for Peglion LLC, which owns dozens of El Pollo Locos in Southern California, took offense to the suggestion by workers and union organizers that franchisees can only survive in this business environment by breaking the law. “We give workers the opportunity to make a living and maybe become small business owners themselves one day,” he said.
The bill passed by a 3-2 vote and moved on to another committee. Closing out the meeting, Chris Holden, who’s carrying the bill in the Senate, acknowledged the workers who’d been rallying across the state and testifying in the capitol were at risk of retaliation by their employers and therefore deserving of respect.
“We gotta listen to them with the same kind of intensity that we would listen to the corporate folks who knock on our doors,” he said.