Labor backs new rights for fast food workers

By Sheri Williams

Led by SEIU 1021, Fight for $15 and Legislative labor leader Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), fast food workers are bringing back their fight for fair wages and working conditions to the Capitol in coming weeks.

Last year, Gonzalez introduced the FAST Recovery Act, or AB 257, with support of SEIU California and thousands of fast food workers organizing with the Fight for $15, according to the union. FAST in the title stands for Fast-food Accountability and Standards—and is meant to provide protections and representation for an industry known for low wages and hard working conditions.

“This is not a group of workers who are suddenly becoming aware that they’re underappreciated or underpaid. I would say they’ve led other workers,” Gonzalez told media recently.

Fast food workers and union members staged an action across the state, including in Sacramento, on Nov. 9 in support of the bill.

For years, the Fight for $15 has grown nationwide into a powerful movement that seeks to unionize fast food workers—who are predominately women and people of color.

Taking that fight one step further, AB 257 would create a statewide council in California that includes workers to set standards for working conditions.

This bill would give workers more power, according to the union. Workers need a seat at the table where standards across the fast-food industry are being set.

“The bill isn’t just about our safety during COVID-19, but having a voice to address issues that so many fast-food workers have faced like wage theft, sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in the workplace,” the union said in a statement.

The bill would also seek to hold major corporations accountable for working conditions.

“We know that in fast-food, the real boss often isn’t the managers in the stores, but the big corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box and others that control many aspects of working in the stores.  These corporations will also be held accountable by this bill,” the union statement continued.

“California has been a leader in workers’ rights, and the FAST Recovery Act ensures that fast-food workers have a seat at the table and a role in improving safety in an industry rife with workplace abuses,” said Joseph Bryant, SEIU California Executive Board member and SEIU 1021 President. “Whether you’re a fast food worker, gig driver, janitor, security officer, a nursing home or dialysis worker—every worker deserves to have a voice on the job. No essential worker should have to risk their lives or their families’ lives to earn a paycheck.”

A joint report by the UCLA and UC Berkeley Labor Centers detailed some of the problem faced by fast food workers in Los Angeles, where thousands rely on such jobs.

“Research has shown that fast-food workers face injury, workplace violence, harassment, and wage theft,” the study found. “The media covered more than 700 incidents of workplace violence at McDonald’s alone between 2017 and 2019. One survey reported that 87% of fast-food workers were injured on the job at least once in the previous year, while 12% were assaulted. Another report showed above average occurrences of sexual harassment, and class action, sexual harassment lawsuits against fast-food companies abound.”

The report also found that fast food restaurant workers faced increased dangers from COVID-19, which exacerbates the risks already faced by fast-food workers.

“In Los Angeles, several high-profile failures to comply with COVID-19 workplace regulations point to the severity of violations and paucity of protection for speaking out,” the report read. “Workers at a McDonald’s in Boyle Heights filed seven complaints after six coworkers contracted the virus, alleging failure to enforce face coverings and social distancing or provide personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers have since claimed retaliation for reporting these violations.”

The report concluded that the “fast-food industry is characterized by franchise models that create a layer of separation, or ‘fissure,’ between workers and the companies responsible for their working conditions. Franchisors exercise ‘vertical restraints’—key elements in how chains operate such as prices, customer rules, and suppliers—but franchisors are not liable for what happens at individual sites.

As in other fissured workplaces characterized by contracting, franchising, or staffing agencies, labor violations are common. Franchising, in particular, frustrates enforcement.”