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California Lawmakers Pass Milestone Fast Food Workers Act

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California lawmakers on Monday approved a landmark measure that would give more power and protection to more than half a million fast food workers, amid objections from restaurant owners who warn it would drive up consumer costs.

The bill will create a new 10-member Fast Food Council with an equal number of employee and employer representatives, along with two state officials, empowered to set minimum standards for wages, hours and working conditions in California.

A late change would limit an increase in the minimum wage for fast food workers at chains with more than 100 restaurants to $22 an hour next year, compared to the Statewide minimum at $15.50 per hour, with the cost of living rising thereafter.

“We made history today,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said, calling it “a turning point.”

“This legislation is a huge step forward for workers in California and across the country,” she said as lawyers offered it as a model for other states.

Restaurant owners and franchisors say the legislation would increase costs for consumers.
Jeff Chiu/AP

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 21 to 12, over a bipartisan opposition. Hours later, the Assembly sent it to Gov. Gavin Newsom with a final 41-16 vote, both chambers passed without votes.

The debate split along party lines, with Republicans opposing, although three Democratic senators voted against the measure and several did not.

“It’s innovative, it brings industry and workers together,” said Democratic Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who carried the bill in the Senate. She called it a “very, very balanced method of addressing employers, franchisees and employees alike.”

Nearly every Republican senator spoke in opposition, including Senator Brian Dahle, who is also the Republican nominee for governor in November.

“This is a springboard to unite all these workers. Ultimately, it will drive up the cost of the products they serve,” Dahle said. He later added, “There are no slaves working for California companies, period. You can stop working every day and you can work somewhere else if your employer doesn’t like you.”

Cited restaurant owners and franchisees an analysis Commissioned by the UC Riverside Center for Economic Forecast and Development, they said the legislation would increase costs for consumers. Govt Gavin Newsom’s administration too fears the measure would create “a fragmented regulatory and legal environment”.

Councilor Chris Holden, D-Los Angeles, center, speaks about his bill to empower fast food workers.
Councilor Chris Holden talks about his groundbreaking bill for fast food workers.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The debate has attracted attention across the country, including on Capitol Hill, where Democratic US Representative Ro Khanna has expressed hope it will cause similar efforts elsewhere.

It’s “one of the most important labor laws passed in a generation,” said Kate Andrias, an employment law expert at Columbia Law School. She called it “a huge step forward for some of the most vulnerable workers in the country by giving them a collective voice in their working conditions.”

The bill grew out of a union movement to raise the minimum wage and Andrias said it would “work with the traditional union organization to give more workers a voice in their working conditions.”

Matthew Haller, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association, responded that the legislation is “a discriminatory measure aimed at targeting the franchise business model to strengthen union ranks.”

Organizations representing Asian, black and LGBTQ businesses sent a letter to senators on Monday claiming the measure would harm minority owners and workers.

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