FAST Recovery Act will raise labor standards and open new opportunities for fast-food worker organizing in California

Ken Jacobs

The California Legislature passed AB257, the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, on Monday. It now heads to the Governor’s desk.

The FAST Recovery Act, as the bill is also known, provides a way for the state’s fast-food workers to have a voice in the development and implementation of labor standards in their industry. It will create a Fast Food Sector Council made up of worker, employer, and government representatives charged with establishing sector-wide standards related to wages, health and safety, and training. The Sector Council provides an innovative framework that better allows workers to promote and protect their rights in an industry where few workers are in unions, and the structure of the industry creates significant challenges to traditional worker organizing and collective bargaining.

Improvements to standards and working conditions in this industry are overdue and sorely needed. Most of the 550,000 Californians employed in fast food earn close to the minimum wage. Wage theft is rampant, as are health and safety hazards. Workplace violence in the industry has been called a “crisis,” and has only been exacerbated by COVID-era customer restrictions such as masking, the enforcement of which has fallen to workers. Eight out of ten fast-food workers in the state are workers of color, and six out of ten are Latinx. Two-thirds are women. While fast-food workers are younger than workers as a whole, the vast majority (77%) are over the age of 18.

To raise standards, advance worker rights, and enable worker voice, the FAST Recovery Act offers an alternative framework for worker organizing, bargaining, and setting labor standards across the industry. The collection and validation of 10,000 signatures of workers in the industry will be required for the Council to be established. As with authorization cards for union recognition, this creates a showing of interest by fast-food workers in collectively setting standards.

The ten-member council is to be made up of two representatives each of fast-food workers, fast-food worker advocates, franchisors, and franchisees, in addition to two representatives of the Governor’s administration. The Council functions as a “social bargaining” table — involving workers, business, and the public, as described by Kate Andrias — over wages and working conditions in the fast-food industry. It is charged with establishing sector-wide minimum labor standards in the industry to supply “the necessary cost of proper living to … fast food restaurant workers” and to effect “interagency coordination and prompt agency responses” regarding issues affecting the health, safety, and welfare of fast-food workers.

Every six months, the Council must hold meetings that will provide a forum for fast-food workers to address issues in the industry. Cities and counties with a population over 200,000 may establish their own similarly-constituted Local Fast Food Sector Councils that will hold hearings and make recommendations to the State Council. These state and local hearings will create a focal point for worker organizing and engagement. As with collective bargaining, the adequacy of the standards will be reviewed every three years.

The fast-food workers did not get everything they wanted in the law. Joint liability over labor and employment violations was stripped from the final version. The bill now precludes the Council from setting policy on paid leave and scheduling—in an industry marked by minimal paid sick days, insufficient work hours, and unstable and unpredictable schedules. While these changes were disappointing, issues of paid leave and scheduling are clearly within the powers of local governments to regulate—and could be taken up in future bills in the Legislature as well.

At a minimum, AB257 should lead to major improvements in labor standards in the fast-food industry, but it has the potential to do much more. When the Fight for $15 began ten years ago, the demand was $15 an hour and a union. The movement succeeded in passing minimum wage policies that are now or will soon reach $15 an hour in eleven states and dozens of US cities. The greater challenge is in building a sustainable worker organization in a highly-fissured industry, where franchisees directly hire the workers but the economic power lies with the corporate franchisors.

Labor law in the United States creates significant challenges for organizing and these are compounded in fissured industries like fast food. In recent years, SEIU, worker organizations, and scholars have argued that labor standards boards could serve as a form of sectoral social bargaining in the United States. While such boards have a long history in the United States, and exist in a variety of forms today, AB257 is the most significant legislation since the New Deal to bring sectoral bargaining to scale in a major private-sector industry.