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California fast-food workers form a unique union in a bid for higher wages, better working conditions

Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Mysheka Ronquillo works as a cashier and cook at a Carl's Jr. in Long Beach, earning $16 an hour. She's looking forward to a raise to $20 an hour in April, thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall.

The higher wages will help her pay for school for her 19-year-old daughter, but keeping up with her bills still will be hard because of an unstable schedule that has her working 30 hours some weeks and 24 hours other weeks, she said.

"Gas isn't going down, rent isn't going down," said Ronquillo, 41, who joined an estimated 350 other fast-food workers at a rally at a Watts community center to inaugurate the state's newest labor organization, the California Fast Food Workers Union.

The union is a unique effort that will pave the way for more than half a million workers at fast-food chains across the state to bargain as a single sector — and could chart a course for other industries across the United States.

Backed by the powerful Service Employees International Union, the California Fast Food Workers Union is the culmination of years of employee walkouts over issues including the handling of sexual harassment claims, wage theft, safety and pay, such as the Fight for $15 movement to increase the minimum wage, organized by the SEIU in 2012.

"Led by Black and Latino cooks and cashiers, the California Fast Food Workers Union is setting a shining example of what is possible," SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said in announcing the union Friday.

 

The union outlined three priorities: annual wage increases, just-cause protections to prevent employers from arbitrarily firing workers, and ensuring workers have predictable and sustainable schedules, without major changes to their hours.

The new organization isn't a traditional union, instead using the model of a so-called minority union that allows workers to avoid the arduous process of organizing restaurant by restaurant through a formal election process certified by the National Labor Relations Board.

"This is a novel approach to organizing workers who have previously not been in unions," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

Such organizing picked up steam during the pandemic, when essential workers were "on the one hand celebrated as essential workers … but in reality making poverty wages and not being truly respected on the job," Wong said.

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