The Fight for $15 Is Moving Beyond the Minimum Wage With a Bold New Idea

Written by on January 26, 2022

In
El Salvador, Ingrid Vilorio was a beautician with her own studio. But when her
autistic son turned five, she and her husband chose to give up the autonomy of
owning a business for a life in the United States. Not knowing how to drive and
equipped with only a few words of English, she applied for a job at the first
place she saw that was hiring—a McDonald’s down the street from her new home in
suburban Alameda County, California.

It
was surprisingly brutal work. Ingrid’s shift started around midnight and went
until six in the morning. There were never enough people working alongside her,
so often she found herself doing the work of two or three people, all by
herself. It was a job that required total devotion. “From the moment you work
at any restaurant, you don’t know how it will be,” she says. “You become
everything that is asked of you, but you think that’s OK.” Since her lack of
English prevented her from interacting with customers, she became a regular at
the dishwashing station, easily the least-desired role in the kitchen. In the
winters, her hands would be frigid, and yet she had to work incessantly to keep
an immense pile of dirty cookware from growing any larger. Other times she
worked the grill, flipping burgers amid a cacophony of alarms telling the
staff when something was ready. “You have to serve burgers in seconds,” she
says, snapping her fingers. If she wasn’t fast enough, the manager would yell at
her.

“I
believe all jobs are difficult,” she says. “But there are jobs where employees
are appreciated more than in other jobs.”

Like
many service industries, from package fulfillment to retail, fast food has
achieved ubiquity in the U.S. through a militant cutting of labor
costs—and, perhaps even more importantly, by erasing any sense of worker
autonomy. First, companies hire the most vulnerable people in society at the
lowest wages possible. (In California, nearly 80 percent of fast-food workers
are Black, Asian, or Latino, and more than a quarter are immigrants, many of
them undocumented.) Then
these companies put them to work in an environment so standardized—and so
fast-paced—that any whisper of individuality becomes a liability. Employees
start off as people with skills and experiences (not to mention hopes, dreams,
and relationships), but they end up as flesh-and-body extensions of the
equipment they operate.

The
result is an industry dependent not just on the rationalization of labor but
on the systemic abuse of its workforce. It’s a reality that has been apparent
for years. But now, as the stresses of the pandemic accelerate the pace of the
abuse, fast food is becoming a locus for a labor movement growing more
confident as it extends its list of demands to include a permanent voice in the
halls of power. After years of unions advocating for a higher minimum wage for service
industry workers, Democrats in California’s state assembly are considering a
bold proposal that might actually give fast-food workers their autonomy back. 


“Since
the pandemic, workers know they need a seat at the table,” says Allynn Umel,
the Fight for $15 national coordinator for the Service Employees International
Union, or SEIU. Since 2012, the union has backed the Fight for $15—named after
its proposed new minimum wage—to organize fast-food workers. During the
pandemic alone, Umel says, workers have filed hundreds of complaints with
regulators about unsafe conditions, unfair treatment, or both. In one recent
survey
of Los Angeles County fast-food workers conducted by the UCLA Labor Center, a
quarter of respondents said they had complained to a manager. Of those who
complained, a quarter faced some form of retaliation, including pay cuts,
threats, and harassment.
 

The
litany of complaints, and the tepid response from regulators, has prompted SEIU
to throw its weight behind a new bill that could give fast-food workers a
permanent voice in government—one that could empower them in workplaces, as
well.

If
it passes, California’s A.B. 257, commonly known as the “FAST Recovery Act” will
create an 11-member “sector council” to set standards for wages, training,
and working conditions for fast-food restaurants that are part of a chain of 30
or more locations nationally. While four of the council’s 11 members would
come from the state’s health and labor agencies, two seats would be reserved
for fast-food workers themselves and two more for worker “advocates,” such as
attorneys or union representatives. The last two seats would be reserved for
the industry itself: one representative of the fast-food corporations (like the
McDonald’s Corporation and Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC,
and Pizza Hut) and one for the franchisees who own their restaurants. But far
from creating a detached observer of industry malpractice, the bill would also
require state regulators to take action against any individual company the
council found to be in violation of its standards. It’s a model that has
precedent in Europe, where “sectoral bargaining” is a common means of securing
labor rights for workers within an entire industry, regardless of their
employer.

California
is a natural place to test a novel approach to regulating fast food. In the
postwar years, an affinity for public investment allowed for the
lightning-fast conversion of much of the state’s deserts and farmland into
suburbia, paving the way for the first restaurant chains dedicated entirely to
car-bound customers, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Taco Bell, In-N-Out, and
Jack in the Box—all of which opened their first locations in the state’s newly
transformed landscapes. Decades later, a propensity for government involvement
now registers in the form of veto-proof Democratic supermajorities in both
chambers of the state legislature, which make it possible to enact the kind of
ambitious legislation progressives in the U.S. Congress can only dream of. A.B. 257
came up for consideration last year,
failing
by just three votes, but when an amended version is expected to go up for a
vote this week, it is likely to sail through the state assembly. (Per the
legislature’s rules, the lower house must vote on the bill by the end of the
month for it to be considered this year.) A robust network of activists across
California has also made the state a front line for the fast-food labor
movement. In 2016, Fight for $15 activists secured the nation’s first statewide
$15 minimum wage.

While
groundbreaking in national terms, a council to police the fast-food industry
wouldn’t be completely out of the norm in technocratic California. As A.B. 257’s
backers point out, the state has maintained other councils to monitor threats
to coastal waters and guide its energy planning since the 1970s. These bodies
serve as platforms for regulators, lawmakers, and subject experts, giving groups time and space to get to know each other, share their worries, and hash
out a response. A fast-food industry council would have a similar composition but with workers and their advocates instead of doctorate-holding scientists
serving as the resident specialists.

If
the bill passes, the hope is that such a council, alongside other, regional
councils around the state, could keep regulators apprised of the ever-changing
face of abuse in the fast-food industry and hold fast-food companies and their
franchisees to account. Giving workers a place to negotiate with the industry would mean they could effectively demand the kinds of basic necessities they are
typically denied, such as more security cameras in
crime-prone
stores
and high-quality
masks.

Umel
says the bill isn’t a departure from the movement’s central ambitions but a
realization of its original goals. “It’s always been about giving workers a
seat at the table, holding large-scale corporations accountable who have been
skirting responsibility and refusing to meet with workers,” she says of Fight
for $15. “If progressive lawmakers want to continue to lead the way, they have
to stand up for fast-food workers.”


Fast
food’s assiduous negation of worker autonomy hardly makes it unique among
service sector industries. Amazon is
notorious for deploying technologically advanced monitoring systems that penalize warehouse staff for pausing too long between scanning packages and
drivers for venturing off their preassigned routes. Walmart has
patented surveillance equipment to monitor the sounds of check stands to track
employee performance. But the dual-ownership structure that made fast food’s
rapid expansion across America possible in the twentieth century has long since
given the industry a unique advantage in exploiting its workers. Most fast-food
restaurants in America are owned not by the corporations whose names you see in
commercials but by independent businesses that carry their likeness under a
franchise agreement. The arrangement allows fast-food corporations like
McDonald’s Corporation and CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr.
and Hardees, to open new stores without risking their own capital. It also
means they can set expectations for those stores’ performance (even unrealistic
expectations) while letting the burden of meeting them fall on the franchisees.

In
her own experience working in chronically understaffed kitchens, Ingrid found
that managers harassed employees because they themselves were overwhelmed.
“Mostly, I feel the pressure comes from higher up, because the [franchise]
owners have a lot of pressure on them,” she said. But the pressure only flows
one way: When individual franchisees are caught breaking the law—by, say,
stealing employee wages in a desperate attempt to make up for a slow week—the
corporations to which they’re beholden reliably disavow any association.


Among
other things, A.B. 257 is an attempt to narrow that gap in accountability. Not
only would it bring fast food’s corporate overlords to the table along with
workers and their franchisees, it would also force those big, name-brand companies
to share the penalties with their franchisees. But the kind of fine that could
bankrupt a small-business owner might barely register for a major corporation
like McDonald’s. Another challenge for regulators is that the entire business
model has become dependent on the kinds of exploitative practices they are
looking to root out. Fast food is about speed (it’s in the name, after all), and
ramping it up in recent years has virtually necessitated workplace
exploitation.

“A
well-run restaurant is like a winning baseball team,” Ray Kroc, the person most
responsible for making McDonald’s a national phenomenon, wrote in his 1977
autobiography,
Grinding It Out: The
Making of McDonald’s
. “It makes
the most of every crew member’s talents and takes advantage of every
split-second opportunity to speed up service.”

Kroc
and his contemporaries had few means to accelerate their workers’ pace, other
than by hiring energetic young people and yelling at them when they didn’t work
fast enough. But with new technology, labor became just another area for
speed-obsessed managers to innovate. In her 2019 book, On
the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane
, Emily Guendelsberger, a former newspaper reporter who took a job at a
San Francisco McDonald’s for research, writes that she and her colleagues were
instructed to fill orders within 60 seconds of tapping them into a cash register.

“Until
pretty recently, it was much too difficult to track and enforce guidelines this
specific,” she writes. “Today, though, monitoring equipment integrated into the
tools workers use to do their jobs can clock and track nearly any task a worker
does in real time.” If surveillance alone were not a dehumanizing burden on
workers, “those same systems can be set to harass, nag, startle, or otherwise
trigger a worker’s stress response every time she lags behind the desired
pace.”

Increasing
the speed in an environment rich with hot oil, wet floors, and knives makes for
jobs that are not just dismal and impersonal but also dangerous and
undesirable to anyone except the most desperate people. More than 40 percent of
participants in the aforementioned UCLA study said they had endured some kind
of workplace injury in the last year alone. The most common injuries, suffered
by 29 percent of respondents, were burns. Workers often report being assaulted
on the job, as well—an occurrence that’s become more common as they attempt to
enforce Covid-19 protocols, such as mask mandates, on their own. “We’ve talked
to workers all over the country who want good jobs,” Umel says. “They’re just
not willing to work jobs that are dangerous.”

A
few months after taking the job at McDonald’s, Ingrid left for a nearby Jack in
the Box. When she contracted Covid-19 last March, her new boss refused to use any
federal assistance to provide her paid sick leave and forced her to come to
work instead, so she sought help from Fight for $15. The experience led her to
picket other fast-food restaurants and speak out about her treatment and
demonstrate in favor of A.B. 257. Still, she says, she aspires to improve her
English enough to  leave fast food for
good and become a beautician again. “That’s what I studied, and it’s what I
did. It’s what I loved,” she says. Until then, she finds other ways to be
something more than a fast-food worker, pausing in the rare down moments
between orders to look at the people around her and think of the ways she could fix
their hair. 

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