When you pass a McDonald’s, you might assume that it is operated by a global mega-corporation. However, in many cases it is a franchise run as a small business.
This model has been a way for entrepreneurs – many of whom are women, immigrants, and minorities – to build and thrive in wealth. But it has also left workers in one of America’s largest industries with few formal recourse claims for poor wages or unsafe working conditions.
Fast food workers in stores across California plan to quit Nov. 9 and gather outside McDonald’s locations in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento for legal liability over individual franchisees extend beyond their corporate franchisees and protest against health and safety conditions in the workplace.
The protests are aimed at pressuring state lawmakers to endorse AB 257, a bill that would establish a nationwide council for the fast food sector made up of workers, company officials, franchisees and state officials would meet every three years to negotiate industry standards for wages and labor, working hours and other conditions for fast food workers.
The bill would hold fast food companies accountable for ensuring their franchisees comply with a variety of labor and public health and safety regulations, including those related to unfair business practices, employment discrimination, the California Retail Food Code, and new standards approved by . the council was issued. The bill would make violations of the franchisee’s labor law enforceable against franchisors and franchisees alike.
The planned action comes amid an explosion of protests and strikes this fall known as “striketober” as workers push for better working conditions and wages. Low-wage workers who have experienced stagnating or falling wages and benefits for decades are fed up. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new frustration and visibility to many workers as they continue to work in grueling, often fatal, conditions.
The fragmented nature of the franchise agreement – where a small business owned establishment pays royalties and is contractually bound to its franchisor – means that while a company holds the reins of the operation of the store, it is responsible for wages and labor can give up conditions.
Franchising has long hampered collective bargaining in the fast food industry as well.
This has resulted in numerous fast food work stoppages over the years, including dealing with sexual harassment, wage theft, security and pay lawsuits, such as the “Fight for $ 15” movement organized by Service Employees International Union.
This week, McDonald’s employees protested the alleged continued sexual harassment of employees in several cities in the Midwest and East Coast. The strike was sparked by a lawsuit against McDonald’s and a Pittsburgh franchise company alleging negligence after a location manager was accused of raping a 14-year-old worker.
“This is not a group of workers who suddenly realize they are underestimated or underpaid. I would say they led other workers, ”said Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), author of AB 257.
The strikes raise awareness but do not necessarily stop operations. Often workers are afraid to speak up because they fear retaliation, said Crystal Orozco, who works as a shift supervisor at a Jack in the Box in Folsom, Calif. Orozco said she worked on the cemetery shift from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. days a week with no assigned breaks for three years.
“You would expect us to take breaks between cars” [ordering at the drive-through], and we wouldn’t turn down or get fined for it, ”Orozco said.
Orozco said she was threatened with reduced working hours for making a complaint. With the support of the SEIU, 36-year-old Orozco and her colleagues in Folsom filed a complaint about unfair labor practices alleging that the company’s regional manager had been threatening workers who complained or spoke to union organizers Calling immigration authorities will reward you.
Fast-food workers are more likely to be women, Latinos, or low-income earners. According to a report produced by labor researchers at UCLA and UC Berkeley, nearly 80% of the fast-food workforce in California is made up of black people and more than 60% of Latinos. The same study found that two-thirds of fast food workers in California rely on safety net programs to support their families.
AB 257, called the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, failed a June assembly vote because it fell below two votes. Shortly thereafter, the bill was approved to be reinstated by the January assembly.
Business interests have spoken out against the bill, stating that the establishment of a commission with the power to decide on wages and health and safety measures is an overstepping process. Matthew Haller, president of the International Franchise Assn., Said the association had heard from members who said they would not expand California with new franchises if AB 257 were to become law.
“For people in California looking to open a franchise in the future, that option won’t exist at all,” said Haller.
According to a report by the International Franchise Assn. Members of minority groups have benefited from owning and operating franchises, and proposed legislation will curb the growth of these businesses, opponents of the bill have insisted. Asian chains in the San Francisco Bay Area have done well, and black business owners operate many McDonald’s locations in South Los Angeles.
Thirty-three percent of all franchises across the country are run by minority members, compared with 18% of non-franchises, according to a letter from the International Franchise Assn., California Restaurant Assn. and the California Chamber of Commerce.
Proponents of the bill argue that it could empower franchisees and reduce the pressures they face. Franchisees often operate under strict regulations and are regularly monitored by business owners to ensure they are following the rules that govern the time it takes to prepare food and even the supplier from whom they can buy supplies. Royalty and marketing fees can gobble up 12% or more of franchisee sales.
If a franchisee is found to have violated state laws, the bill would allow the owner of that location to seek a monetary or injunction if compliance with their contract with their corporate franchisor contributed to their breach of the rules.
AB 257 was one of a number of draft laws on labor law in the last legislative period. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a number of them, including a bill designed to address safety concerns in Amazon shipping centers across the state, where workers have high injury rates related to closely-pursued productivity goals, and laws that expanded the liability of fashion brands for work violations in their supply chains.
Chris Rhomberg, a professor of sociology at Fordham University who researches labor history, said a trend towards increasingly multi-layered agreements between workers and employers – including franchising, outsourcing and dependence on independent contractors – is keeping employers from complying with labor laws.
“Because it is difficult to get to a job to unionize, workers and unions are looking to other places to try to take control of their work and find other ways to regulate health and safety,” said Rhomberg.
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