Opponents of a new law aimed at protecting and empowering California’s 550,000 fast-food workers say they’ve gathered enough signatures for a referendum that will put AB 257 on hold until the November 2024 ballot when voters can decide the outcome. Fast-food employees are seen here at a rally held earlier this year in Orange County. (File photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Five years ago, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced an aggressive plan to create “Unions For All.”
Today in California, that vision looks exceedingly small.
How else to react to the forthcoming statewide launch of a so-called fast food workers’ union? This new entity is not a union in the traditional sense, it has no self-sustaining funding source, and no employer is obligated to bargain with it. Moreover, it has no apparent power beyond collecting feedback from the union’s existing supporters.
If a union-in-name-only is the SEIU’s future, no wonder union president Mary Kay Henry announced her retirement this week.
This fast food flop is a debacle of the SEIU’s own making. The union spent more than a decade working on its Fight for $15 and Union campaign, a wildly-expensive undertaking to unionize fast food restaurants. The final price tag topped $100 million. The union achieved its policy goal of normalizing a $15 minimum wage, but it failed spectacularly at its goal of unionizing fast food workers.
(As of its most-recent Labor Department filings, the SEIU’s National Fast Food Workers Union reported zero members.)
Struggling at the national level, the union turned to its legislative allies in California. It worked for several years to enact the so-called “Fast Recovery Act,” a scheme to create a new council that would regulate wages and working conditions for fast-food workers. The idea: Save the union the unproductive hassle of signing up new workers, and instead make all of them subject to a union-controlled government board.
Though it took the union two legislative sessions to pass it, over fierce resistance from restaurants, it eventually got to the Governor’s desk in 2022. He signed it on Labor Day that year.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. The restaurant industry successfully collected more than one million signatures to put the unpopular law to voters in a 2024 referendum. To prevent an embarrassing public defeat at the ballot box, the SEIU found itself in an unusual position of weakness–at a bargaining table with its sworn enemies in the hospitality industry.
In exchange for pulling the referendum, the SEIU’s signature Fast Food Council was transformed into a smaller-toothed tiger, an advisory board whose primary power is to increase the relevant minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living. The union’s scheme to destroy the franchise industry was scrapped. And liberal localities like Los Angeles and San Francisco were prohibited from raising fast food wages above any state mandates.
The one policy priority the union achieved in the negotiation–a $20 minimum wage for many fast-food restaurants–has already proved deeply unpopular. The EuroJournal reported that fast food prices in California are among the highest in the country, and set to rise even higher thanks to this SEIU-backed wage mandate. Restaurants report cutting workers’ hours and benefits, and even scrapping lunch service–all to keep their doors open in response to a $20 minimum wage.
One Los Angeles resident interviewed by the Journal warned: “People are going to be able to eat out less and less. We are going to be eating at 99-cent stores.” (The SEIU might not mind that outcome, as long as the 99-cent stores are unionized.)
After several years of lobbying and untold millions spent, the SEIU in California is still lacking the one “win” that matters to its leadership: New dues-paying members. Private sector union membership remains at an anemic six percent nationwide, and fast food workers are apparently no more interested than other employees in signing up. Perhaps these workers see how the SEIU is squandering its members’ dues on fake food unions–and decided they would rather keep their money.
Michael Saltsman is Executive Director at the Employment Policies Institute