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Fast Food Workers Strike to Protect Hard-Won Labor Law from Corporate Attacks

Workers fought for a law giving them a seat at the table. Now they say corporations are trying to trick voters into repealing the law.

Workers in red t-shirts holding up signs and chanting on a sunny day. One of the signs reads, "Join Us at the Table." The t-shirts say "Unions for All"
Fast food workers outside the Cypress Park Starbucks demanding to keep their seat at the negotiation table. (SOURCE: Sarah Michelson)

Fast food workers across the state went on strike Tuesday, November 15, in a coordinated protest against corporate attempts to block AB 257, a new law that gives workers a voice in determining their wages and working conditions.

On Labor Day this year, Governor Newsom signed into law AB257, also known as the FAST Recovery Act, which will establish a Fast Food Council to negotiate industry-wide standards for wages and working conditions. The council could set fast food workers’ minimum wage as high as $22 in the first year, with small annual increases after that. The state Legislature could pass laws modifying or rejecting the standards put forth by the council, but if the Legislature does not intervene, those standards become state law.

The council will consist of two fast food workers, two labor advocates, two franchisors, two franchisees, and one representative each from the Department of Industrial Relations and the Office of Business and Economic Development.

Corporations successfully lobbied to remove a section of AB257 that would have extended joint liability, meaning that large corporations would have faced accountability for the actions of their franchises.

After months of protests and several strikes in support of the law, fast food workers celebrated its passage, while some business groups denounced it. The Chamber of Commerce called the law, which could allow some workers to earn a living wage, “radical” and likely to cause “economic calamity.”

McDonald’s President Joe Erlinger — who makes about $389,000 per month — complained that the law would unjustly target large corporations. Just a day after the law was signed, an advocacy group filed referendum paperwork to stop the law. The group, called “Save Local Restaurants,” is made up of the largest fast food corporations in the world. Starbucks, Chipotle, and In-N-Out each contributed over $2 million to the effort.

The group needs 623,212 signatures by December 4 for the referendum to make it onto the 2024 ballot. Videos collected by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) show that in an effort to collect more signatures, canvassers told voters the referendum would raise the minimum wage for fast food workers, when in reality it seeks to block wage increases.

Intentionally deceiving voters this way is illegal and could disqualify the referendum. SEIU has sent the videos to the California attorney general and secretary of state, demanding an investigation.

On November 15, hundreds of striking workers picketed outside the Cypress Park Starbucks before taking their protest to the Taco Bell and Chipotle headquarters in Orange County.

“We don’t want to lose what we already won,” said Irma Aburto, who works at a McDonald’s near MacArthur Park. “We fought hard for AB257 so we could get to the table with representatives from the corporations, so they can hear what it’s really like to work there, and we can have a voice on things like pay, benefits, and schedules.” Protesters had set up a table with chairs labeled “Starbucks,” “El Pollo Loco,” “McDonald’s,” and “Del Taco.” Their signs and chants said, “Join Us at the Table.”

Fast food workers have staged strikes at hundreds of locations since the onset of the pandemic, protesting low wages and unsafe working conditions. “McDonald’s doesn’t care if we are sick,” said Lizett Aguilar, who organized to pass AB257 after working at the restaurant chain for almost 20 years. She said her boss pushed people to work even when they were infected with COVID, and workers received at most one disposable mask to reuse for the entirety of the pandemic. Extra masks were locked away.

As a result, Aguilar went home scared to touch her children for fear of infecting them. “My son asked, do you not love me anymore?” When Aguilar spoke out and organized protests demanding workplace protections, McDonald’s fired her. (The California Labor Commission fined the franchise $125,000, but they haven’t paid the fine, and Aguilar has yet to receive back wages.)

Fast food workers were on the front lines of the pandemic. Line cooks faced the highest COVID risk of any profession, with a 60% increase in deaths during the pandemic. After losing so many co-workers to death and sickness, Aburto says fast food companies forced remaining workers to pick up the slack. “We applied for one job,” she said, “but they had us doing two to three jobs at once. That’s called exploitation. Now they don’t want to hire more people.”

If the law goes into effect on January 1 as planned, the Fast Food Council will set health and safety standards that could include, for example, a minimum number of workers per shift.

Workers at last week’s rally said they wanted a union, too. “It will be a fight,” said Aburto. “But we will win. If not for us, then for the next generation.”

As she walked to the car to head to the next protest, McDonald’s worker Laura Pozos told me how difficult it is to get by on fast food wages as the cost of living continues to rise. She said fast food giants were trying to buy their way out of complying with the new law, but she and her co-workers were pushing back, demanding the corporations come to the table.

Pozos carefully guided her elderly aunt Maria de los Ángeles Pedroza along the sidewalk, holding her hand tightly. Pedroza works at McDonald’s too, and makes $16 an hour.