Crystal Irving, president of SEIU Local 221, joins fast food workers and activists to block traffic outside Jack in the Box headquarters on June 9, 2022. / Photo by Joe Orellana for Voice of San Diego
Fast food workers and activists blocked traffic outside Jack in the Box headquarters on June 9, 2022. / Photo by Joe Orellana for Voice of San Diego

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The California Senate passed AB 257 by a 21-12 vote on Monday. Originally introduced by former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill establishes a Fast Food Sector Council at the state level to promulgate minimum standards on wages, working conditions and training.

Franchisees and the workers have been lobbying hard all summer. In June, Jesse Marx attended a protest outside the headquarters of Jack in the Box, where more than a dozen people got arrested to raise awareness of their cause. They pointed to research showing that fast food worker households tend to fall below the poverty line and report wage theft or health and safety violations while on the job.

The California Restaurant Association, in response, has argued that labor violations in the fast-food industry are low and the current system for labor relations works fine. In a statement last week, president and CEO Jot Condie said an international union (SEIU) was smearing small business owners to launch a national organizing campaign.

Origins of this bill: Organizing within the fast-food industry is notoriously difficult because the work is standardized and relatively simple and workers tend to leave rather than dig in. As Vox noted in a recent story, sectoral bargaining is common in Europe because it allows workers who are often part-time across an entire industry, as opposed to a single company, the ability to set standards for employment.

After warning about unionization in fast food, Senate Republicans opposed to AB 257 spent a lot of floor time reading lists of random restaurants, including Randy’s Donuts. Sen. Pat Bates said singling out a single industry for special oversight was unjustified while Sen. Brian Jones called it “a not-so-hidden tax on California families.” 

Both voted no. Sens. Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso were a yes. 

Tweaks at last minute: As currently written, AB 257 does not make fast food corporations jointly liable for violations in a franchise. It includes a six-year sunset so lawmakers can revisit and only applies to a restaurant with “100 or more establishments nationally that share a common brand.” The council must also be made up equally of workers and employers. 

With those changes in the Senate, the bill went back to the Assembly on Monday night and passed with the minimum number of votes, CalMatters reported. Assembly members Tasha Boerner Horvath, Brian Maienschein and Chris Ward voted yes while other Democrats, including David Alvarez, abstained.

It goes next to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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