March 24, 2023

U.S. unions have garnered their highest level of recognition in nearly 60 years, as high-profile victories for workers at Amazon and Starbucks spark public support. However, union membership – the lifeblood of the labor movement – has fallen to an all-time low.

Labor experts told ABC News that the decline in the workforce stems in part from federal labor laws, as employers retain broad latitude to thwart union movements. In turn, companies tend to drive down wages and weaken labor conditions in pursuit of a competitive advantage, taking advantage of companies’ lack of worker representation, experts say.

But analysts say the first-ever state law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday could circumvent those challenges and change the future of worker negotiations.

The law allows hundreds of thousands of fast food workers to bargain collectively over the terms of their jobs at big companies across the industry, rather than being forced to unionize at one workplace and negotiate with one employer at a time. Using a new state-level commission, California could raise wages and improve working conditions in the industry.

Sharon Bullock, executive director of the Labor and Work Life Program at Harvard Law School, told ABC News: “It’s really important because it gives fast food workers a place at the table across the industry.”

“Once it’s up and running, fast food companies can’t compete with each other based on who can reduce labor costs as much as possible to increase profits,” she added.

The law passed the California Senate last Monday by a 21-12 margin after the state legislature passed a version of the bill in January.

Newsom on Monday Video posted on twitter By the California Governor’s Office.

“But it didn’t happen by chance. We already had a formula — a formula for success around growth and inclusion,” he added. “So many states forget the second half of the formula.”

The law created a 10-member committee of industry and worker representatives and two state officials that could set industry-wide standards on health and safety issues and set an industry-wide minimum wage.

Angelica Hernandez, a staff manager at McDonald’s in Los Angeles, said she welcomed the potential to impact the company’s condition.

“They made us work for two or three people, but we were only paid enough to work for one,” she told ABC News.

When Angelica started working at McDonald’s 17 years ago, she was making about $7.50 or $8.50 an hour, she said. Now, she says, she makes $17.75 an hour and still struggles to meet her needs.

“Now we will have a voice to better represent what workers across the industry need,” she said.

McDonald’s did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

The law does have limitations. It capped the potential minimum wage for fast food workers next year at $22. At that point, the statewide minimum wage will be $15.50. The law requires cost-of-living adjustments to the industry-wide minimum wage, but won’t come into effect until 2024.

Fast food workers and their supporters march past the state capitol to call for a bill to give fast food workers more power on August 16, 2022 in Sacramento, California.

Ricky Pedronceli/Associated Press

Additionally, decisions made by industry-wide committees will only apply to large companies with 100 or more locations across the country.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, said the law marked a huge stride by the labor movement in organizing workers, such as those in the fast food industry, who have been working to improve conditions in their industries. , one of the nation’s largest unions and a major supporter of the law.

“We see this model as a huge step forward for workers who have been excluded from our country from the start,” Henry told ABC News.

SEIU supports efforts to roll out the model to other states, including worker-friendly state capitols in New York and Illinois, she said. Ultimately, the union aims to incorporate the model into federal law, she added.

“Through labor history, the law has followed the radical actions of workers who were fearless and determined to create new models,” she said.

Photo: California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference announcing $694 million in Homekey awards to build more than 2,500 new homeless housing across the state at Homekey in Los Angeles , 24 August 2022.

On August 24, 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced at a news conference the $694 million Homekey award to build more than 2,500 new homeless housing units statewide.

Caroline Brehman/EPA via Shutterstock

Some industry representatives opposed the law. Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, a trade group, warned that this will lead to increased costs for the fast food industry, which will weigh heavily on small businesses.

“Very few state legislatures pass a bill that would hurt small businesses, their employees and their customers,” Cosmo said in a statement, adding that the law “does just that.”

“This comes at a time when inflation is at a record high and households are struggling every month,” she said.

There is some precedent for the law – both domestically and abroad. In some European countries, workers often negotiate industry-wide, such as fast food workers in Denmark.

A similar pattern has boosted wages for workers in New York’s fast food industry, with the statewide labor board setting the industry’s minimum wage at $15 an hour in 2015. It marked one of the first major victories for $15, a labor movement aimed at raising wages and unionizing the fast food industry.

New York’s Wage Commission — a statute that allows governors to convene committees to investigate specific sectors and raise wages — took effect in the New Deal era.

“People found out that this thing was still there, dusted it off and tried it,” Sean Richman, a labor scholar at SUNY Imperial College, told ABC News. “That made SEIU a true believer in the process.”

Now, California has passed a law that allows fast food workers to constantly negotiate wages and better conditions.

“It’s reproducible,” Richman said. “The potential to increase union strength is huge.”

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