California lawmakers approve landmark fast food worker bill

California lawmakers on Monday approved a spike measure that would yield more than half a million fast food workers have more power and protections, despite objections from restaurateurs who warn it would increase costs for consumers.

The bill goes create a new Fast Food Council of 10 members with an equal number of workers’ delegates and employers’ representatives, as well as two State officials, empowered to set minimum wage standardsworking hours and conditions in California.

A late amendment would cap any minimum wage increase for fast-food workers at chains of more than 100 restaurants at $22 an hour next year, up from the statewide minimum $15.50 per hour, with the cost of living increasing thereafter.

“We made history today,” Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry said, calling it a “watershed moment.”

“This legislation is a huge step forward for workers in California and in all the countriesshe said as advocates offered him as a model for other states.

Pedestrians walk under an In-N-Out Burger restaurant sign.
Restaurant owners and franchisors say the legislation would increase costs for consumers.
Jeff Chiu/AP

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 21 to 12, against bipartisan opposition. Hours later, the Assembly sent it to Governor Gavin Newsom in a final vote of 41–16, with both houses acting without a vote in reserve.

The debate split along party lines, with Republicans opposing it, though three Democratic senators voted against the measure and several did not vote.

“It’s innovative, it brings industry and workers together around a table,” said Democratic Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who took the bill to the Senate. She called it “a very, very balanced way of addressing employers, franchisees and workers alike.”

Almost every Republican senator has spoken out in opposition, including Senator Brian Dahle, who is also the Republican nominee for governor in November.

“It’s a springboard to unionize all these workers. Ultimately, it’s going to drive up the cost of the products they serve,” Dahle said. He later added, “There are no slaves working for California companies, period. You can quit anytime and you can go find a job elsewhere if you don’t like your employer.

The restaurateurs and franchisors mentioned analysis they commissioned by the UC Riverside Center for Economic Forecasting and Development saying the legislation would increase consumer costs. Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration has also fears the measure would create “a fragmented regulatory and legal environment”.

Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Los Angeles, center, speaks about his bill to provide more power to fast food workers.
Assemblyman Chris Holden talks about his landmark fast food worker bill.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The debate drew attention across the country, including on Capitol Hill where Democratic U.S. Representative Ro Khanna expressed the hope it will trigger similar efforts elsewhere.

It’s “one of the most important employment laws passed in a generation,” said Kate Andrias, an employment law expert at Columbia Law School. She called it “a big step forward for some of the country’s most vulnerable workers, giving them a collective voice over their working conditions.”

The bill grew out of a labor movement to raise the minimum wage and Andrias said he would “work in conjunction with traditional union organizing to give workers more voice over their working conditions.”

International Franchise Association President and CEO Matthew Haller countered that the legislation “is a discriminatory move aimed at targeting the franchise business model to bolster union ranks”.

Organizations representing Asian, Black and LGBTQ businesses sent a letter to senators on Monday arguing that the measure would hurt minority owners and workers.

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