Fast food workers in California could soon win an important victory. Over the past couple of years, a coalition of workers and unions, led principally by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Fight for $15 and a Union, have been fighting and lobbying for a statewide sector council where employees can negotiate wages and working conditions with fast food employers. The culmination of this struggle is a bill now before the California Senate.

Assembly Bill (AB) 257, also known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, would create a 13-member fast food sector council with the ability to set minimum standards on wages, hours, health and safety, and other working conditions. With worker and union and employer representatives, the council would function as a form of sectoral bargaining over industry standards, enhancing the ability of fast food workers to have a say over their work. The sector council would meet and hold public hearings once every six months and review and revise industry standards once every three years.

The state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement would be tasked with enforcing the law and the entitlements negotiated by the council. A further provision of the bill would also authorize cities or counties with populations of 200,000 or more to establish Local Fast Food Sector Councils, to make locally appropriate standard recommendations to the central council.

Legislators in the California Assembly voted 41 to 21 in favour of the law in January, after the bill previously failed in June 2021. The bill then passed the state Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee this June, and is scheduled to go before the state Senate Committee on Appropriations this week before proceeding to a final Senate vote later this month. The movement of workers and unions behind AB 257 are thus on the cusp of a major win.

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average wage of fast food workers in California — a state with a $15 minimum wage and higher minimums in some local counties — was $15.61 per hour. According to new research, fast food workers are now earning $16.21, on average. However, the same study finds that other workers in the service sector in California — those who work in grocery stores, department stores and retail shops — earn nearly $3 per hour more. In other words, despite recent wage gains, fast food workers continue to experience a wage penalty that a sector council will seek to eliminate.

AB 257 would not only allow workers to negotiate over wages, however. Equally important are provisions that would compel employers to address other working conditions, including health and safety. According to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, fast food workers in Los Angeles County faced comparatively higher risks of contracting COVID-19, in addition to contending with workplace violence from customers and stress relating to enforcing pandemic safety protocols. This same study also finds that wage theft and other labour violations increased during the pandemic, including health and safety infractions and workplace injuries. In addition, fewer than half of fast food workers received paid sick leave when they contracted the virus.

The Fight for $15 and a Union, in collaboration with University of California researchers, as well undertook their own study, Beaten, Stabbed, Silenced: Violence in California’s Fast-Food Industry and Workers’ Fight for a Voice, exposing the widespread physical, verbal, and sexual violence endured by the state’s fast food employees, and the refusal by employers to take these issues seriously. The report demonstrates the urgent need to put in place preventative measures to address workplace violence, the most important of which, the sector council, would give workers an institutional role in setting industry standards.

In January, 40 organizations of labour advocates and civil rights experts, led by the Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project, penned a detailed letter in support of AB 257, highlighting the bill’s potentially important contribution to rebalancing the scales between workers and employers.

AB 257 is, of course, not simply the result of compelling research or sympathetic legislators. Workers throughout California have organized and taken strike action numerous times over the past couple of years to bring attention to labour issues in the fast food industry and to advocate for legislative change. Last November, fast food workers across the state staged a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions and to call for the passage of AB 257. This followed various smaller work stoppages at more than 300 locations throughout California over the previous year and a half, many over issues related to COVID-19 safety. Workers at McDonald’s initiated a strike across more than 10 cities over the company’s failure to address workplace sexual harrassment and violence.

In July, fast food workers organized a “caravan” to rally in support of AB 257, visiting the offices of state senators to pressure them to support the bill. They also took their protest to the office suites of fast food giants Taco Bell and Chipotle, who, along with other employer organizations, have vociferously opposed AB 257. The California Restaurant Association, for example, has framed the bill as imposing additional costs that will raise prices at a time when inflation is already harming working families. While there has also been small business opposition, the bill would largely leave small, non-franchised shops untouched. As written, the sector council created by AB 257 would only set standards for restaurants that are part of a brand with 30 or more franchises nationally.

Yet it’s franchisees who are generating the most opposition to the sector council model. Franchisees and their representative organization have been strong opponents of the bill, organizing into a Stop AB 257 coalition. Stop AB 257 has sought to frame their message around the upward social mobility offered to women and racialized people who open franchises and the potential threat that new regulations pose to these entrepreneurs. As Marcia Chatelain’s excellent book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, details, fast food corporations have a long history of tying civil rights issues to their particular brand of franchise entrepreneurialism — nevermind that the majority of fast workers in California are women and racialized people.

To oppose AB 257, franchisees claim that parent corporations make them responsible for complying with labour standards and laws, and that the new bill would impose costs they can’t bear. While this is likely untrue, there is however some truth to the argument that the franchise model so prevalent in fast food was in part designed to relieve multinational corporations of responsibilities and costs related to labour. Corporations frequently use franchising, sub-contracting and other “distancing strategies” to evade responsibility for adhering to labour regulations and to push the costs of compliance onto franchisees. Research suggests, unsurprisingly, that franchisees are more prone to labour standards violations.

While California has more fast food workers than any other state, the vast majority — roughly 728,000 of them — are employed by franchisees. Importantly, provisions in the bill would require parent companies to provide adequate resources to franchisees to comply with the new law and the standards ultimately set by the sector council. In other words, franchisors and franchisees would be “jointly liable” for adhering to new labour standards under the law.

Moreover, claims by franchisees and other opponents of the bill that AB 257 would impose undue costs is belied by recent research on the law’s likely fiscal impacts. As Ken Jacobs at the UC Berkeley Labor Center argues, the resultant increases to workers’ wages would decrease dependence on other state social safety net programs and increase income tax revenues. In this sense, by creating mechanisms for workers to extract better pay and benefits from employers, the state of California will likely improve its fiscal position.

While not a fully-fledged sectoral bargaining system, AB 257 offers a great example of sector-wide regulation that gives workers a seat at the table. Workers and labour advocates in Canada should take note and consider ways to build collective power in pursuit of similar reforms here.