Legislation in Sacramento that falls neatly into the “only in California” category is a bill that would make the state the sole arbiter of “industry-wide standards on wages and working conditions in the fast food industry.” The private sector seems to be losing ground nearly every day in this bluest of states.
In a state where the minimum wage is already $15 an hour for most fast-food employees, and some activists are agitating for an even higher floor for all workers, lawmakers are again considering forcing wages higher. Assembly Bill 257, written to “empower workers” and “hold companies accountable,” has been pulled from the inactive file and is again moving toward becoming state law.
Known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act or FAST Recovery Act, AB257 would establish a Fast Food Sector Council made up of “11 members to be appointed by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate Rules Committee,” which “would prescribe its powers.” Its mission working from within the state Department of Industrial Relations is to “promulgate minimum fast food restaurant employment standards, including standards on wages, working conditions, and training, and to issue, amend, and repeal any other rules and regulations.”
The text of AB257 doesn’t directly address employer-employee negotiations, but media reports suggest that the council will have the authority to bargain with employers on workers’ behalf. Bill supporters, say the San Francisco Chronicle, want “to empower workers to negotiate through unions” to level what they say is unacceptable inequality. But since organizing is difficult in the fast-food industry, they believe the state should become a de facto labor boss, making the demands of employers that a union would.
This doesn’t strike everyone as a good idea.
“Not only would that override fast food workers’ freedom of association even more than labor unions, we should ask what California’s government has done well enough that you want to turn a whole sector of the economy over to them,” says Gary M. Galles, a Pepperdine University economics professor.
It wouldn’t surprise Galles that the members of the proposed Fast Food Sector Council would seek the aid of hardened union negotiators in their talks with the industry.
“When unions own the legislature in California, union backers will dominate any commission,” he said. “So FAST would give unions the right to dictate to the entire fast food industry.”
Galles suspects that part of what’s driving the proposal is an effort to “shake down large corporate franchisors to try to browbeat them into unionizing,” which would be beneficial to labor leaders but not the workers they want to “represent.”
Galles is not wrong when he says “unions harm the vast majority of American workers.” They drive up labor costs, leaving fewer jobs available. And should AB257 become law, they would do exactly that without ever organizing a single worker.
By no coincidence whatsoever, AB257 was originally introduced by Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, who was also the primary force behind job-killing Assembly Bill 5, which outlawed independent contract work almost entirely across the board. That law, an obvious gift to unions hoping to organize rideshare drivers, is one of the most hated pieces of legislation produced by Sacramento in decades. It created such a gale of angry complaints that legislators had little choice but to follow up by carving out exemptions for some of the jobs that fell under its restrictions.
Gonzalez is no longer in the Assembly, having recently resigned from the Legislature. This summer she will become the California Labor Federation’s executive secretary – which can’t possibly be a coincidence, either. Despite her absence, Gonzalez’s fingerprints are still all over the agenda. Both her original version and the amended bill claim that “fast food workers face overlapping crises of wage theft, sexual harassment, unsafe workplace conditions, and some of the lowest wages of any occupation group in the state,” and therefore need state intervention.
Some of that is no doubt true. Sexual harassment cuts through all of society, and risky working environments can be found in any sector, though there’s a big difference between the chance of catching COVID-19 while working the grill at McDonald’s and the likelihood of being maimed in a logging accident.
But wage theft? Paying workers less than what politicians think they should earn is not the same as stealing. Insisting it is so, though, establishes the grounds they think they need to justify trespassing further on private sector turf.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.