California Fast-Food Workers Will Get a Raise, But It’s Not as Good as It Sounds

California fast-food workers at big chains like McDonalds will get a raise to $20/hour starting April 1, 2024. The raise is part of a new law signed by Governor Newsom on September 28. This new law replaces an earlier fast-food law passed last year which would have immediately raised fast-food workers’ wages to $22/hour. The fast food industry forced the repeal of the fast-food law passed last year by threatening to force a referendum. Fast-food bosses say they can live with the new law since it was written in a form dictated by them.

Fast-food workers, like all workers living in a high-cost state like California, need to earn more than $20/hour. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates a raise to $20/hour still leaves fast-food workers with less than a living wage, which in California is $23/hour for a household of three.

The law establishes a Fast Food Council which is supposed to look after the interests of fast-food workers. The members of the Council will be appointed by the governor and other politicians. If a majority of the Council decides that fast-food workers need wage increases in years to come, the Council has the power to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers but by no more than 3.5% in any one year. Three and one-half percent is less than the current rate of inflation.

The bill was passed only after fast-food bosses forced changes in the proposed law so that the Council would have no power except to give workers a limited annual wage increase. Workers can’t be disciplined for bringing complaints to the Council about abusive working conditions like wage theft, sexual harassment, discrimination, etc. but all the Council can do is refer the complaint to another government agency for legal action against the owner/operator of the local store. The law passed last year made corporations, like McDonald’s,  who franchise restaurants all over the country, equally liable along with the local owner for remedying complaints about abusive working conditions. But the fast-food bosses got that provision taken out of the law.

The way the law was watered down is one more indication of how the California government, which is run by the Democrats, bows to the demands of big business. If low-wage workers, including fast-food workers, win big improvements in working conditions and a living wage, it will be because they’ve figured out how to organize and fight on the job and in the streets. Lobbying the politicians and appealing to a toothless Fast-Food Council clearly won’t do the trick.