After decades of decline, the labor movement in America is once again on the move. Over the past couple of years, major employers that have never had to contend with an organized workforce have suddenly been confronted with waves of collective action unlike any this country has seen in a long time. One of the most dramatic explosions of labor activism has taken place at Starbucks, where more than two hundred stores across the nation have unionized in the span of about nine months.
Of course, there are around nine thousand company-operated Starbucks locations in the United States, so even at the current pace of organizing it would be many years before a majority of Starbucks workers belonged to a union. The fact that these unionization drives have had to proceed store by store is a consequence of U.S. labor law, which generally requires bargaining between unions and management to take place at the level of individual workplaces rather than that of entire companies or industries. Other countries, such as Sweden, provide for some amount of “sectoral bargaining,” whereby negotiations can occur between representatives of all workers and firms in a given industry.
In California, a new bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Labor Day may represent a first step toward such a model here in the United States. The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), will create for the first time a “Fast Food Council” tasked with setting “sector-wide minimum wages, working hours, and other working conditions” for the fast-food industry. The council will be composed of ten members appointed by the governor and leaders in the state assembly and senate. Each of four groups—fast-food franchisors, franchisees, workers, and worker advocates—will be represented by two members; the remaining two members will be from offices within the state government.
The council will have jurisdiction over any fast-food restaurants belonging to a chain with at least a hundred locations nationwide. Restaurants with existing collective-bargaining agreements would be exempt from whatever rules the council issues as long as those agreements provide “equivalent or greater protection.” The law also allows for the creation of local fast-food councils in larger cities and counties, which would be able to set their own even higher standards.
Technically speaking, this would not constitute true sectoral bargaining, since the members of the council will be appointed by the state, not by unions and employers. This setup is more akin to a “wage board,” a little-known statutory mechanism on the books in a handful of states whereby representatives of labor, management, and government can be called together to set wages for a particular industry. In response to demands from the “Fight for $15” movement, which originated a decade ago with fast-food walkouts across the country, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo invoked a state law from the 1930s to convene a wage board in 2015 that issued a fifteen-dollar statewide minimum for fast-food workers.