The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

California's ballot-box fast-food fight

Episode Summary

As the fast-food industry collects signatures on a ballot measure to push back on a bill that would improve wages and conditions for workers, some voters allege that they were lied to by petitioners.

Episode Notes

Last year, the California State Legislature approved a bill that aimed to improve wages and conditions for fast-food workers, but the fast-food industry raised millions to oppose it. As petitioners collect signatures, voters allege that they were lied to by petitioners.

Today, we get into the food fight — and California’s murky world of signature-gathering. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporter Suhauna Hussein

More reading:

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

UC Riverside should investigate ‘phony’ economics research center, faculty say

Column: The fast-food industry gears up to kill another pro-worker state law


Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: For years, fast food workers across the United States have rallied for better pay and working conditions.

Protest chanting: What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now! If we don't get it, shut it down. If we don't get it, shut it down

Gustavo Arellano: In California last summer, the state Legislature listened. 

AB 257 voiceover: The California State Senate advanced a measure that would give more than a half million fast food workers more power and protections.

Gustavo Arellano: But the law hasn't been instituted yet.

AB 257 voiceover: The bill would create a new 10-member fast food council that would be empowered to set minimum standards for wages, hours and working conditions In California.

Gustavo Arellano: The fast food industry gathered enough signatures to put a statewide ballot initiative on the 2024 ballot in the hopes of overturning it. Californians have a unique style of democracy from most other U.S. states in that if someone gathers enough signatures, they can put anything, and I mean anything, to a statewide vote and make it a law if it passes.

It's led to good and bad things over the past century. But in recent years, major corporations have used a ballot initiative to basically throw an election day tantrum.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” It's Wednesday, March 8th, 2023. Today, the political fight over fast food workers in California and what it says about the future of California's proposition system.

Here to talk about all this is my L.A. Times colleague, business reporter Suhauna Hussain. Suhauna, welcome to “The Times.”

Suhauna Hussain: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo Arellano: So this fast food worker bill at the center of the controversy. What's the story behind it and what exactly did advocates say it would do?

Suhauna Hussain: Right. So the union, SEIU, so the Service Employees International Union, uh, they have been assisting fast food workers with their campaign to get higher wages. And the bill, AB 257, would create a council of worker representatives, um, government representatives and franchise, fast food company representatives to set wages and working conditions for workers in the fast food industry. 

So this, um, representative body would have had the authority to raise their wages as high as $22 an hour this year, in 2023.

Gustavo Arellano: Wow.

Suhauna Hussain: That doesn't mean that they would necessarily have done that, but that is the upper limit of what AB 257 would've allowed them to do.

And the bill, the first time it went through the Legislature, it didn't make it through. On a second pass, it did, but you have a certain amount of time after the Legislature passes a law, where if you gather enough support,  you can halt the law and put the question to California voters as a proposition, as a voter initiative. So voters can vote it up or vote it down.

Suhauna Hussain: So basically the fast food industry, this coalition of trade groups and corporations, came together and put millions of dollars into a referendum campaign to stop AB 257 from happening. Um, opponents of the law said that it would raise labor costs too high and put a lot of restaurants out of business.

Suhauna Hussain: And they had a study that claimed fast food prices would rise 20% if this bill went into effect. 

Gustavo Arellano: Where did they get that figure from? Is that how much wages would rise?

Suhauna Hussain: Well, it is true that food prices would rise. We just don't know that it would rise as much as 20%. But there's a whole other conversation we could have about the research that they put together on that.

So there's this research center at UC Riverside that does a lot of industry-funded reports. Um, they've been used by Lyft and Uber when they funded a ballot proposition to carve out a California labor law in a way that worked with their business model. And we saw that with Prop. 22. 

Prop 22 ad: In California, RideShare as we know it is at risk. According to an independent study, if drivers are forced to become employees, there will be far fewer drivers on the road. So rides may take twice as long to get to you. Prices could increase 25 to 100%. And even worse…

Suhauna Hussain: The fast food industry also used this research center.  And recently, uh, professors throughout the UC system have raised issues with this reasearch center. It turns out that the center is not run by a faculty member, who like teaches classes at UC Riverside. It's run by an independent consulting firm, uh, Beacon Economics. Um, Riverside gets royalty payments for the reports that this firm puts out bearing the UC Riverside brandings.

Gustavo Arellano: After the break, a second look at the research study at the heart of the campaign to stop AB 257.

Gustavo Arellano: Suhauna, you mentioned a study at UC Riverside that these fast food coalitions have been citing in their campaigns, but it raises some concerns for professors at UC Riverside. What’s their issue with it?

Suhauna Hussain: Right, So professors told me that they felt like it was basically this random company like licensing a public university's logo and stamping it on research that they felt was not up to par, and it was being used to attack state labor laws in a way they disagreed with. And, uh, the firm, Beacon Economics, came back and were like, everything about this was sanctioned by the university. And we disclosed who, uh, funds the reports and people who are coming after us just disagree with us ideologically. 

Gustavo Arellano: So this coalition of fast food industry groups just followed Uber and Lyft and funded a study that they cited for their arguments against a bill that would be against their interests, and when it passed anyway, this bill, the fast food groups just went with Plan B, which is start a referendum campaign.

Suhauna Hussain: Yeah. Pretty much as soon as AB 257 was signed by the governor, within a day or two, they had launched this campaign.

AB 257 voiceover: The biggest issue is AB 257. It is no doubt one of the most far-reaching and damaging proposals the restaurant community has seen in decades. 

Suhauna Hussain: They spent millions of dollars on this campaign in the fall.

AB 257 voiceover: AB 257 essentially establishes a fourth branch of government to set statewide policy for one segment of employers. Its precedent and reach are irresponsible. This is something that was top of mind for over 40 business groups, local chambers of commerce and partners like the International Franchise Assn. and the National Restaurant Assn., who also worked incredibly hard in attempts to stop this proposal.

Suhauna Hussain: And so, they had until Dec. 5 to submit about 623,000 California voter signatures to the state. And they ended up submitting more than 1 million signatures, of which more than 700,000 were deemed to be valid. 

Suhauna Hussain: And so the law's now on hold. 

Gustavo Arellano: So now the voters will have their say in November of next year.

Suhauna Hussain: Yeah, it's been an interesting discussion and political process. And part of this larger conversation about how businesses have been using statewide voter initiatives to create state labor law, or to change state labor laws.

Gustavo Arellano: Coming up after the break, the murky world in which people collect signatures for ballot measures in California.

Gustavo Arellano: So Suhauna, the fast food industry thinks it could overturn a liberal law in blue, blue, blue, California. That's not really surprising. I mean, California voters have also rejected affirmative action and gay marriage in just the past 15 years. So there's always this weird, like, dichotomy with California and its democracy. So what was it about how the fast food industry gathered signatures so fast to fight this council that made you wanna investigate?

Suhauna Hussain: So the union that had backed AB 257 filed a complaint with California officials saying that they were hearing reports that the campaign was violating state election rules, and misrepresenting the ballot initiative to voters.

Suhauna Hussain: So once they filed that complaint, I wrote a story about it and I started hearing actually from a few people, um, who said that this had happened to them.

One of the people I spoke to was Dan Killam. He was in San Francisco when he came across a signature gatherer.

Dan Killam: Their clipboard was almost full with signatures. They were getting a lot of takers, ’cause, I don't know, I mean a lot of people support restaurant workers around here, you know? I know I do.

Suhauna Hussain: He thought he was actually signing a petition that would help to raise wages for fast food workers.

Dan Killam: They said explicitly that it was about raising restaurant worker wages. That's what they said. I mean, I agree with that. And so I agreed to sign it.

Suhauna Hussain: But in fact he was actually signing a petition that aimed to get rid of the law that would've done exactly that.

Dan Killam: I'm worried I unknowingly undermined them by signing this thing. I'm a pretty politically active person and I read the news pretty obsessively and I got fooled. And if I can get fooled, who knows who else is getting tricked? It's disturbing to me and, if I sign any petitions in the future, I know I'm gonna be reading the fine print.

Suhauna Hussain: So I spoke also to a few people who had sort of interactions with signature gatherers who were pretty aggressive. Emily Pothast and her partner came across people who they felt were misrepresenting the AB 257 referendum campaign to people at the Oakland Farmers Market. And she tried to sort of engage with the signature gatherer and like point out the text of the petition and see what they thought and if they knew what exactly it was that they were actually selling to people.

And she said, once, when she was speaking to an elderly man who was collecting signatures, a woman came over who appeared to be a supervisor and started yelling at her. And it was just kind of like a nasty situation from her perspective. 

Gustavo Arellano: Are there laws in place to prevent voters signing up for something that they're not really clear about or maybe have regrets about later on?

Suhauna Hussain: Yeah. So there are laws that make it a misdemeanor to misrepresent a ballot initiative to voters. It's just, it's difficult to enforce and courts have generally been pretty hands off. And if you did want to enforce it, it's also really hard because of all the layers in the chain. Like the campaign hires another firm, which hires a bunch of other firms, which hire contractors. It's hard to sort of know who did what. And, um, so it’s just, there aren't very many consequences for doing this, and we're seeing this more in recent years. 

Gustavo Arellano: But has there been any blowback over the signature gathering for the fast food council ballot initiative?

Suhauna Hussain: Yeah, people talking about it on social media, and I think, um, some people did file, uh, complaints with our California election complaint portal. Um, and then there are transparency advocates who are really trying to think of ways to make this process serve voters a bit better so that they know what they're signing.

For example, one of the things that you'll probably see in May this year, if you're approached by someone who's collecting signatures for something, is it's supposed to now have a line under, um, where each signature is gonna go, that pretty much tells you: Make sure you read what this petition is going to do.

I can't remember the exact wording right now, but you'll have to see that when you sign. Um, it really does put it on the voter for sure. It's not changing anything about who the signature gatherers are actually beholden to, or the training for them or anything like that. 

The courts are reluctant to make it extremely difficult to collect signatures. But, if you look at it like gathering signatures to put something on the ballot is an extension of free political speech, you don't want to make it super difficult to gather signatures.

There was a press conference held at the end of last year, called by SEIU, the union that backed AB 257. And the transparency advocates on the call said that they were looking to find ways to help this be less of an issue, one of the things that they're considering pushing is having a portion of signatures that need to be collected by people who are not paid. One of the things that comes up with signature gatherers is that they are incentivized to say whatever needs to be said to get a signature because they are paid per signature. Could be even like $10 a signature.

So while it's not really currently possible to get rid of paid signature gathering, they are exploring the possibility of at least making sure that some portion of those signatures has to come from grassroots support, so is collected by volunteers rather than paid signature gatherers. 

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, after reading your story and just talking to you, I just don't know how this could be fixed because people are always in a rush. Like, you put a petition in front of them and say, “Hey, it's gonna be for this. Can you sign it?” And either you ignore them completely or you like what someone says and you just say, “OK, I'll sign it.”

But it's always hard to make people just pay attention. So I hope that, especially after this, that maybe something will happen to fix this issue so this doesn't happen as often as it currently seems to happen.

Suhauna Hussain: Right, that’s a really good point. Um, we all know what it's like to run in to do an errand at a grocery store and you're approached by someone who's collecting signatures for something. For me, like writing about this, one of the things I'm hoping people will take away is that they should, you know, pay attention to what they're signing, read the petition. Maybe this at least will work on an individual level.

Suhauna Hussain: There is a long history of wealthy and powerful groups manipulating systems to their benefit. So I think that's probably nothing new. I do think the California ballot initiative system is known to be especially…

Gustavo Arellano: Gameable.

Suhauna Hussain: Yeah. And we have so many things to vote on. Every cycle it feels like.

And one thing to note is you have to get so many signatures and the time frame to gather signatures for a referendum is pretty short. But if you have enough money, experts will say, you can qualify anything for the California ballot.

I think that's why it's an increasingly popular option.

Gustavo Arellano: So obviously the companies want voters to pass their propositions, but even if they fail, well, it's kind of an investment for them to do this in the first place. 

Suhauna Hussain: It's definitely an investment. This coalition raised more than $13 million in support of their campaign as of December. So it's not cheap. It takes a lot of money. But the thing is, even if they're ultimately, like, unsuccessful in their campaign on the ballot, they've still managed to put off this law for two years and, probably the way they see it is, they've saved money not implementing the law. 

These laws would've gone into effect in January of this year. But because these campaigns pass, now they have two more years to not have to deal with it. 

Gustavo Arellano: Suhauna, thank you so much for this conversation.

Suhauna Hussain: Thanks so much for having me.

Break 3

Gustavo Arellano: And that’s it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Nicolas Perez and Denise Guerra were the jefes on this episode, it was edited by Jazmín Aguilera, and Mike Heflin mixed and mastered it.

Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.