How Calif.'s fast-food business got a $20 wage: A timeline

On April 1, 527,000 fast-food workers in California will be entitled to pay of at least $20 an hour, a 29% boost from their current minimum wage. Experts say the jump will likely ratchet up pay across other industry sectors as well.
Photo illustration by Nico Heins

The unprecedented increase was the result of what California Gov. Gavin Newsom himself called “sausage-making,” a fit of politics that began more than a decade ago. 

Here, month by month, is what happened.  



Gavin Newsom on a call

After becoming governor, Gavin Newsom gets a call from Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. She has an unconventional idea for raising fast-food workers’ pay in California.  

2018 -2020 

Discussions take place between state lawmakers and SEIU leaders about “sectoral bargaining,” a practice used outside of the U.S. to set wages and workplace conditions for a whole industry. The conversations focus on fast-food workers. 

With stiff resistance from the restaurant industry, laws fail to materialize from the discussions. 



A plan to institute sectoral bargaining is written into the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, a.k.a. the Fast Act.   


The bill falls 3 votes short of the majority needed to be passed by the state Assembly.  


Newsom survives a recall vote, backed heavily by the SEIU and other labor groups. 



The Fast Act is reintroduced. This time it passes the Assembly by 20 votes. 


The state Senate approves the Act after dropping a joint-employer provision. 


legislation fast act

On Labor Day, Newsom signs the Fast Act into law. 

A coalition of industry trade groups begins a $40-million effort to put the law before voters in a referendum.   


Enough signatures are collected to put a referendum on the Nov. 2024 ballot. Newsom indicates he’ll start enforcing the Fast Act as of Jan. 1, despite the pending referendum, with fast-food wages mandated to rise that day to $22 an hour. But enforcement is blocked by a state judge.  

The law is suspended until the referendum is held. 



organized labor

Stymied by the removal of a joint-employer mandate from the Fast Act, organized labor pushes for a standalone bill, AB 1228, that would make restaurant franchisors joint employers of their franchisees’ employees. 


Unbeknown to all but a few, Newsom indicates he plans to resurrect a long-defunct wage-setting body called the Industrial Welfare Commission. It would have greater fast-food wage-setting power than the panel called for in the Fast Act. If the Act was killed by referendum, the IWC could take up its work. 

Facing a wage-setting panel regardless of what happens in 2024, the industry accepts Newsom’s overtures to negotiate an alternative option with the SEIU, which is also leery of a fight projected to cost as much as $150 million. 

The adversaries start to meet in closed-door sessions to hammer out a compromise. 


The two sides announce they have a deal. AB 1228, the joint employer bill, would be rewritten. The joint-employer focus is dropped. Most of the Fast Act is inserted in place of that language. A wage-setting Fast Food Council panel would be created, but with limits. The fast-food minimum wage would jump 29%, to $20 an hour. 

The new version of AB 1228 sails through the Assembly and Senate. 

Gavin Newsom signing

Newsom signs it into law on Sept. 28.  


The deal is contingent on the industry coalition withdrawing its request for a 2024 referendum.  That action has yet to happen.  

Newsom appoints Laphonza Butler, a past president of an SEIU California chapter, to serve the remainder of Diane Feinstein’s term as U.S. senator.  

Correction: An earlier version of the timeline erroneously stated that Newsom became governor in 2011. He became lieutenant governor that year, not governor.

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