'I feel duped': Inside the fast-food industry's push to dismantle a new California labor law

Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Susan Bushnell was in a hurry when a man, clipboard in hand, approached her outside a Walmart Supercenter in Vista, California, one afternoon last September.

The man asked Bushnell to sign a petition as she wrangled her fussing 5-year-old daughter into a shopping cart. He said the petition would help to raise wages for fast-food workers in California.

"Oh, that's a good cause," Bushnell remembers thinking, having once worked in retail. Bushnell paused her rush into the San Diego County store to jot down her signature.

But what the man told Bushnell was false. The petition was part of an effort to kill a newly approved law that could bring significant wage increases for California's fast-food workers.

That law, known as Assembly Bill 257, or the FAST Recovery Act, was set to go into effect Jan. 1 but is now on hold. State election officials said last week that a coalition of fast-food corporations and industry trade groups, which raised millions to oppose the law, secured enough valid signatures to block implementation of AB 257 until California voters decide next year whether to repeal the law.

Bushnell is among 14 voters interviewed by The Times who say petition circulators for the ballot measure lied to them about what they were signing. Others said the signature gatherers made vague and misleading claims — a Hollywood canvasser, for instance, presented the petition as an inflation cure — or tried to hide legally required paperwork explaining the proposed referendum, sometimes becoming abusive when questioned.


These interactions spanned the state, with examples in Pasadena, Marina del Rey, Northridge, San Diego, Richmond, San Marcos, Oakland and San Francisco. One canvasser sought signatures at a Tijuana school, where he was seen falsifying addresses for signers who weren't California voters.

"I feel duped," said Bushnell, who did not realize her mistake until more than a month later when she read a Times report that California's largest union had filed a complaint with state officials alleging that the industry coalition was "willfully misleading voters." In support, the union submitted video footage of four interactions in which petition circulators falsely told union organizers that the petition sought to raise worker pay.

Encounters described to The Times offer a glimpse at the haphazard and largely unregulated operation of collecting signatures for statewide voter initiatives. Numerous social media posts called out similar incidents, suggesting The Times' findings probably represent just a fraction of voters affected by deceptive signature gathering tactics for the AB 257 referendum.

The system can at times incentivize paid circulators to peddle exaggerations or falsehoods in exchange for signatures.


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