Voters Will Determine Fate of Fast Food Workers Pay Raise

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 257 into law. Supporters of the legislation, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), hailed it for its promise to provide a minimum wage and improve working conditions for fast food workers.

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Edward Henderson | California Black Media

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 257 into law. Supporters of the legislation, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), hailed it for its promise to provide a minimum wage and improve working conditions for fast food workers.

But late last month, the future of AB 257 — also known as “the Fast Act” or “the Fast Food Recovery Act” — came into question. California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber’s office announced that a referendum seeking to overturn the law had gathered enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot.

“To qualify for the ballot,” the Secretary of State’s office wrote, “the referendum needed 623,212 valid petition signatures, which is equal to five percent of the total votes cast for governor in the November 2018 General Election.

When AB 257 passed last year along party lines, it authorized the establishment of the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act or FAST Recovery Act. The bill established the Fast Food Council within the Department of Industrial Relations, to be composed of 10 members to be appointed by the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate Rules Committee. According to the bill’s language, the purpose of the council is to establish “sector-wide minimum standards on wages (up to $22/hour in 2023 with capped annual increases), working hours, and other working conditions related to the health, safety, and welfare of, and supplying the necessary cost of proper living to, fast food restaurant workers, as well as effecting interagency coordination and prompt agency responses in this regard.” The act prohibits retaliation against fast-food workers for making certain workplace complaints. Opponents of AB 257, led by a coalition called Save Local Restaurants, gathered more than 1 million signatures on a referendum petition. 712,000 of them were deemed to be valid by Weber’s office putting the referendum on the Nov. 5, 2024, ballot. The Los Angeles Times published an article telling the stories of 14 voters who say they were misled by canvassers collecting signatures for the referendum. Many of them said that information was withheld from them about the nature of the campaign and were simply told it would support fast food workers.

But the laws’ opponents insist that their challenge to AB 257 is widely supported.

“California voters have made clear that they want a say on whether they must shoulder the burden of higher prices and job losses caused by the FAST Act,” said Save Local Restaurants in their press release. “This legislation singles out the quick service restaurant industry by establishing an unelected council to control labor policy, which would cause a sharp increase in food costs and push many Californians, particularly in disenfranchised communities, to the breaking point.”

The referendum means that the law is suspended until the November 2024 election when voters will decide whether to repeal it.

Holden, who is a former franchise owner said he believes AB 257 would protect both owners and employees – if those opposing the law allow it to work.

“Given, the final version of the bill removed many expressed concerns of subpoena power and joint-liability. While, strengthening the over-site role of the legislature, providing for equal Sector Council representation and adding a sunset clause to evaluate effectiveness. As a result, this first in the nation worker protection bill is worthy to become law in California,” Holden said when Newsom signed the law last year.

Labor advocates believe the legislation could create a precedent in the U.S for negotiating workplace standards, which would, in turn, revolutionize the collective bargaining process.

However, the coalition of businesses opposing the law feel it would leave businesses with higher labor costs and hiked-up food prices.

According to the nonpartisan Fair Political Practices Commission, fast-food corporations and business trade groups including In-N-Out, Chipotle, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks and the National Restaurant Association donated millions to support the referendum effort.

“The FAST Act is bad policy that threatens not only quick service restaurants, but the independents operating in the same neighborhoods,” National Restaurant Association Executive Vice President for Public Affairs Sean Kennedy said in a press release. “There is no way that the regulations passed by this unelected council would not damage the state’s restaurant industry, harm its workforce, and leave diners paying the bill. We’re pleased that Californians will get the chance to exercise their constitutional right to vote on this law and will continue to support the operators, small business owners, and workers that make the restaurant industry so important to our customers’ lives.”