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For years, California has presented itself as a labor-friendly state. A single bill, currently before the state Senate, is going to substantially define either the scope or the limits of that self-identification — and it might even shake up a nation, labor experts say.

But it would have to gain Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature first.

kroger workers

Assembly Bill 257, known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act (or FAST Recovery Act), isn’t an overly complicated piece of legislation, but its implications are profound. Passage could dramatically affect the fortunes of more than 550,000 service workers in California, that could, among other things, potentially: 

  • Improve pay
  • Curb wage theft 
  • Protect workers against sexual harassment in the workplace

“This could be a historic turning point,” said Jennifer Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator with the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute. “The bill is a very important acknowledgement that our federal labor law, which we know is supposed to protect the right of local workers to organize, is broken. We cannot wait for federal reform.”

Should the bill clear the full Senate, though, it would fall to Newsom to actually enact it. And the governor’s mixed record on labor issues leaves it unclear what he would do with AB 257.

The FAST Recovery Act would establish a 13-member council empowered to set minimum working standards in fast food establishments across California. That could include something as straightforward as a wage floor, but it could also mean mandating more training or ensuring that specific personal safety measures are put in place. (The state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, would still be responsible for most workplace safety rules.)

Worker organizations have long argued that such guidance is necessary. Two-thirds of the fast-food workers in California are women, and 80% are people of color, according to Service Employees International Union Local 1021, a major proponent of the legislation. Some 85% of workers surveyed earlier this year said they’d experienced wage theft, such as not being paid for overtime, and they earn on average $6,000 less than workers in comparable service-sector jobs across the state.

Under AB 257, those workers would have a seat at the table. The council would include four members who represent workers or their interests, just as the restaurant industry would have four seats. Because only six votes would be required to approve a mandate, full opposition from the restaurant-corporate sector could not derail an action on the 13-person board.

“These workers are called essential, but they’ve had to deal with rampant wage theft, sexual harassment and wages that make it impossible to support a family in California,” said SEIU 1021 President Joseph Bryant. “This is just vital to working families in our state.”

But AB 257 goes several steps beyond those important basics. It ties franchisees more directly to their parent companies, making it possible for the state to hold massive conglomerates like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (which owns Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell) responsible for the conditions and workplace violations that play out in their franchised stores.

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That’s potentially a game-changer. 

Currently, the parent corporations mandate most details of the fast-food operations to their franchisees, but they leave it to the individual owners to determine wages and working conditions — often the only way in which franchisees can control their profit margin. That process allows the corporations to distance themselves from liability for individual workplace violations. This bill will remove that distance.

It’s also a step toward “sectoral bargaining,” in which unions negotiate working standards across an entire industry, not just one company. Federal labor law in the U.S. prohibits sectoral bargaining, but states have the leeway to impose specific working conditions on their own, experts say.

Not surprisingly, the California Legislature’s serious movement on AB 257 — it has cleared both the Assembly and the Senate Appropriations Committee and awaits a full Senate vote — has spurred tremendous opposition from the restaurant industry. One reason: It’s a template for other worker protection movements around the country.

“If passed, we expect to see similar legislation in states like New York, Oregon, Washington, Illinois and more,” the National Restaurant Association declared in a lobbying memo. “The greatest chance for defeating this legislation is in the California Senate, making it imperative for the industry to focus its efforts there.”

The California Chamber of Commerce has also been lobbying against the bill, arguing among other things that it likely would raise costs on local franchise owners, who in turn would pass them to consumers. “Between skyrocketing food and gas prices, working families can’t afford to pay another government-mandated cost increase every time they eat a meal,” chamber advocate Ashley Hoffman wrote.

Newsom, whose office said he would not comment on pending legislation, has been hard to predict on such matters. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for California farmworkers to organize, claiming the measure contained “various inconsistencies and procedural issues” without enumerating them.

The governor used the occasion of the veto to say that he has “worked tirelessly to protect and support workers across California,” but the reality is more nuanced. Newsom certainly has the general support of organized labor (unions contributed more than $25 million to fight his recall last year), but some union members, particularly those in health care, were rankled by the governor’s decision not to extend extra pandemic sick pay. And many of them remember that Newsom campaigned on a single-payer health care platform, then abandoned the idea once he reached office.

The governor’s own Department of Finance opposes AB 257, saying it would add ongoing costs to the state’s supervising Department of Industrial Relations and that it would create a “sector-specific rule-making body,” which it argues could fragment the legal and regulatory environment for employers.

Of course, that’s part of the point of the bill: The existing regulatory environment around the fast-food industry is a failure, and a rule-making body dedicated to this specific sector is necessary to ensure decent working conditions and wages for more than half a million Californians. AB 257 arrives before the Senate amid a changing labor environment nationally, in which worker organizing is on the rise and tolerance for bad-employer behavior is wearing thin.

Those are the circumstances under which the bill may advance to California’s governor. It could be a profound pro-worker moment for the state, and the first legislation of its kind in the country. But not unless Newsom says so.

This article was originally published on Capital & Main.