A labor powerhouse launches a fast-food workers' union in California

Backed by the deep-pocketed SEIU, the California Fast Food Workers Union aims to organize quick-service workers across brands. It will likely be the source of two members of the state's new wage-setting Fast Food Council.
California fast-food workers celebrate the creation of the Fast Food Council. | Photo: Shutterstock

When the specifics of California’s new fast-food wage-setting process was announced last summer, one component didn’t make sense. The new protocol called for giving two seats on a new Fast Food Council to “fast-food advocates,” a head-scratcher since unions, the intended seat recipients, had virtually no presence in the sector there beyond a few organized Starbucks stores.

Now the mystery has cleared. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced on Friday that it is forming a new union specifically for fast-food workers within the state.

The SEIU hailed the California Fast Food Workers Union as the first of its type within the U.S. Its formation fits the goal of the SEIU to foster what’s called “sectoral bargaining,” starting with California and then spreading elsewhere. The idea is to make a union the voice of a whole industry sector, in this case by organizing just the fast-food workers of the nation’s largest state restaurant market.

The approach allows a labor group to organize hundreds of thousands of workers in a highly fractionalized industry like the restaurant business, instead of going from outlet to outlet or even chain by chain.

The SEIU reaffirmed that goal earlier this week with the announcement of a leadership change slated for May.

“Led by Black and Latino cooks and cashiers, the California Fast Food Workers Union is setting a shining example of what is possible when workers step into their power,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. Today marks a major step forward for California fast-food workers and working people everywhere.”

Michael Saltsman, executive director of the pro-employer Employment Policies Institute, dismissed the venture as a complete fake, a "union in name only.'

"It has no self-sustaining funding source, and no employer is obligated to bargain with it," he wrote in an opinion piece that ran in today's Orange County Register, a news medium that serves southern California. "Moreover, it has no apparent power beyond collecting feedback from the union’s existing supporters."

Saltsman characterized the venture as a Hail Mary from the SEIU after the union failed "spectacularly" to organize fast-food worker in the traditional manner.

Announcement of the fast food union’s formation comes as Minneapolis is forming a labor panel similar to California’s Fast Food Council. The Minneapolis version would address wages and working conditions across all industries within the city, but with an expected provision in its charter to spin off sector-specific subcommittees going forward.

Proposals for the Minneapolis Labor Standards Board would give the panel merely the power to recommend changes in wages or working conditions, unlike California’s Fast Food Council. The Council has the authority to set wage increases of up to 3.5%, beginning next January.

As part of the deal that led to the Council’s formation, the minimum wage for an estimated 500,000 fast-food workers in California will rise $20 in April, a jump of about 30% from the current mandated pay floor. It can only recommend changes in workplace conditions to the state Department of Labor.

In announcing the formation of the California Fast Food Workers Union, the SEIU stated that the new group would seek to get the full 3.5% annual increase in the state’s fast-food minimum wage.

It also indicated that the new force would push to end at-will firings by fast-food employers, and to set a minimum number of hours that the workers would be entitled to work.

The SEIU said the preliminary meeting of California Fast Food Workers Union organizers and employees will be held today in Los Angeles. It projected that hundreds of workers would attend.

The SEIU is the nation’s second largest labor union and the biggest within the hospitality business. It is the umbrella organization for such groups as the Fight for $15 and a Union, a group seeking to kill the tip credit nationwide, and Workers United, the division that is attempting to organize Starbucks store by store. Members of the new union would also be members of the SEIU.

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