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This past Labor Day, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation giving more than 500,000 fast-food workers a seat at the table with their employers to set wages and working conditions throughout the industry in California. It was the culmination of a decade-long organizing effort by the workers, most of whom are women and people of color, twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers in the state.
On Monday, just in time for the holidays, the multibillion-dollar fast-food industry filed signatures to try to stop the law in its tracks until 2024 when they attempt to repeal it through a ballot initiative. The industry has already bankrolled more than $21 million in three months for its regressive fight.
In creating a “Fast Food Council” with equal representation for the stakeholders, the new law in essence declares that a fast-food corporation can no longer be more powerful than the workers who create their wealth. It is an historic model that potentially paves the way for transformation of industries across the nation, so it comes as little surprise that McDonald’s et al. is pulling out all the stops to try to defeat it, including paying canvassers a per-signature premium and reportedly employing deceptive practices.
This display of corporate greed would make a fantastic story line in a reboot of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life; however, the lives and basic dignity of real people are at stake.
I recently spoke with about 20 fast-food workers in Oakland to better understand their experiences and what this fight means to them. (Names withheld below to prevent retaliation.)
A McDonald’s worker talked about working in the kitchen through the summer without air-conditioning. Even after a colleague passed out and was taken to the hospital, nothing changed. It wasn’t until workers went on strike that the air-conditioning was finally repaired.
At a Burger King, workers requested security due to repeated encounters with aggressive customers. One badly cut a worker’s face. Management threatened that security would be paid for by a reduction of worker hours.
Another McDonald’s worker was sexually abused, but said nothing because they feared a loss of hours or a call to Immigration.
This fear of retaliation resonated across the group. A Jack in the Box worker joined the Fight for $15 and then had “several days taken away, leaving me with only two. That’s the retaliation they do to us.”
There was no mistaking what a seat at the table would mean.
“They’ll not be able to retaliate. They’re not going to take away hours. We’re going to have a better life,” said a Domino’s worker.
“Most of us have two jobs. I’ll leave one job and keep only one, and be able to pay more attention to my health,” said a Burger King worker.
“We want to break a system that for years has been breaking us,” said a Jack in the Box worker.
In November, the workers filed nearly twice as many signatures as required in order to get the council launched in January. It will take time to get industry signatures validated. In the meantime, workers can take their rightful seat at the council table before billionaires buy their way to the ballot box and halt progress.
Then the battle becomes a two-year marathon to land on the right side of history.
Workers won’t be able to match the fast-food industry’s money—McDonald’s alone netted $7.5 billion in profits in 2021—or its army of lawyers and communication consultants. But we have the truth. And we can organize across movements to get boots on the ground. And we can hopefully count on individuals and organizations with means to help build a war chest.
Those of us who believe in justice, equality, and basic human dignity will be with workers every step of the way. I know I will be. I hope you will join us.
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