California Labor Giant Forms Union For Fast Food Workers

Back in September, Governor Gavin Newsom raised the statewide mandatory minimum wage for California fast food workers to $20 per hour. The raise is scheduled to take effect on April 1, and to many inflation-weary laborers, it's a welcome, long-overdue reprieve. Gas and rent prices remain unwaveringly high in California. The first-of-its-kind legislation hasn't been without heavy pushback, particularly from larger corporations who are reluctant to hand over more of their bottom line. McDonald's owners, for example, have called the $20 minimum "financially devastating." Even so, adversity has not deterred service industry workers from organizing, and per an official announcement on Friday, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is forming the California Fast Food Workers Union.

The California Fast Food Workers Union will be headed by Black and Latinx cooks and cashiers. Rather than organizing one restaurant at a time, which can be a grueling and time-consuming process, the Union is following the minority union model and gathering fast food service industry workers across brands, a radical development for such a highly divided industry. This cohesive approach will also foster "sectoral bargaining," an attempt to drive financial change for minimum-wage fast food workers in California — eventually moving beyond state lines to help other low-wage workers nationwide. If effective, this organization could serve as a model for non-union workers in other industries beyond fast food, as well.

The SEIU is helping workers take what's theirs

Instead of negotiating contracts with individual employers, union members will lobby for industry-wide change in a way that isn't specific to any company or brand, particularly via California's newly established Fast Food Council, which will begin meeting March 15. Two members from the Union are expected to join the Council,  which was created by Gavin Newsom's AB 257 and is authorized to set industry standards for minimum wage, working conditions, and health and safety standards. The labor group has already announced several of its future plans, including pursuing the full 3.5% year-over-year wage increase outlined in Newsom's FAST Recovery Act, following New York's "Just Cause" worker protection rule and ending at-will firing, and guaranteeing laborers a minimum number of scheduled hours per week.

The union is rolling onto the scene with powerhouse funding. The SEIU is the second-largest labor union in the country, which houses Fight for $15 (which was organized in 2012) and Workers United, a name union advocates might recognize from its highly vocal, highly effective division Starbucks Workers United. Members will pay $20 monthly membership dues.

The California Fast Food Workers Union ultimately brings years of industry-wide disgruntlement over pressing issues — from wage theft to sexual harassment allegations to workplace safety — to a head. Through radical grassroots efforts, workers are striving toward the ultimate goal of making poverty wages the relic of a dark and unflattering national past.