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Film Club: ‘How to Protect Millions of Workers Without a Union’

[MUSIC PLAYING] So here’s a paradox. American unions are grabbing headlines and their public approval is at 71 percent, Its highest since the 1960s. Yet union membership is at an all-time low. Why? Well, basically, big business and the U.S. government have spent half a century working hand in glove to rig the rules, fix the fight, and in the process batter trade unions. Essentially, American workers have gotten double-teamed. However, there’s an emerging solution that could strengthen the labor movement, and it’s called a minimum standards council. What’s a minimum standards council? Well, it’s a committee of workers and their employers who meet with government representatives to negotiate wages, benefits and safety standards for an entire industry. If successful, they can bring worker protections to millions who struggle to unionize and give labor a fighting chance. Hey, I’m Jeff Seal. I’m a comedian and video journalist, and I’m traveling cross-country to capture the wave of minimum standards councils. And hold on, OK, Mom — “Hi, sweetheart.” “No, I’m in the middle of my intro right now.” “Oh, OK.” “Oh, actually — my mom, that’s her right there, was an activist in the ’70s fighting against plane closures.” “Also, I was a journalist.” “And she was a journalist. Mom, I got to wrap this up.” “Oh, can you help me with my Wi-Fi router?” First stop, Washington, D.C. I did a little bit of sightseeing and then sat down with Mary Kay Henry to discuss hot labor summer. “Fast food workers in California, nursing home workers in Minnesota, nail salon workers in New York all realize that the current rules are broken. And so these minimum standards councils are their way to rewrite the rules and transform poverty wage work into living wage work that people can feed their families on. And the first modern example of that were the domestic workers in Seattle.” Next stop, Seattle. I did a little bit of sightseeing and then hit the road to see if the nation’s first minimum standards council was actually living up to its promise for the 33,000 nannies, cleaners, gardeners and others working in private homes. You can’t unionize a living room, so in 2019, the city’s domestic workers established a minimum standards council where they could literally sit at the table and craft the laws needed in their industry. “This is a sector of workers largely paid under the table informal contracts. And if there is a labor violation, harassment, intimidation, wage theft, it largely goes unreported. We want to provide a place for workers to be able to go to continue to voice their concerns and improve standards in this industry, and recognize we had to break away from the isolation that exists in this sector.” “Have you thought about getting a $20 microphone and driving around neighborhoods that probably employ domestic workers?” [MUSIC PLAYING] So, does anybody have any questions or? Sorry, I didn’t take my shoes off. Can I use your guys’ bathroom real quick? Also — So, in addition to what I did, the city’s domestic workers use their seat on the standards council to get the word out by funding a program that educates workers and homeowners on their new rights.” At a local worker center, I met a domestic worker named Andrea Zarate. After years of working 13- hour days, six days a week, and being denied sick days and overtime, Andrea filed a case and won $71,000 in back wages. Andrea is the first domestic worker in Seattle to receive back wages since the inception of the minimum standards council. This is what happens when workers, not just politicians, can shape policies and extend basic rights to those who have gone far too long without them. “Yeah.” Next stop on my tour? California, where I met another group of workers in need of basic rights. But in this industry, establishing a minimum standards council would be a lot more difficult. Why? Well, Seattle homeowners don’t hire lobbyists. But you know who does? These guys. [MUSIC PLAYING] “Hi, how are you?” “Hi. Could I get an interview about the FAST Act?” “Say what?” Yet in 2022, workers finally won a minimum standards council with the ability to raise the minimum wage and improve working conditions with the passage of the FAST Act. Guess how many cooks and cashiers benefited? Let me just check my notes. Half a million. Could I get an interview about the FAST Act? “No.” “Oh, OK. Can I get a Oreo cookie milkshake, Chicken McNuggets, two cheesy gorditas, two Oleatos. Like wage theft, workers’ safety and security. What did you guys want to talk about?” “Referendum.” “The referendum. Passing the FAST Act seemed like a massive victory, but these lobbyists punched back. They launched a vicious campaign that froze the FAST Act by forcing a referendum in 2024. How? By convincing unsuspecting Californians that their petition was actually in support of higher wages for workers.” “So what is this for?” “Oh, for minimum wage to go up.” “The name of the petition?” “They’re trying to raise minimum wage.” “Oh, OK.” That’s what lawyers call willfully misleading. “If I sign it, like —” I wanted to see if these workers would continue the fight. “Muchas gracias. OK. À bientôt. Or not à bientôt. That’s French.” “Hi, Mr. Haller. This is Jeff Seal. I tried my hardest to get an interview with the International Franchise Association, the California Restaurant Association. Hi, my name is Jeff Seal. And almost everyone at McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, Sandy Rodriguez, Mayor McCheese. Representative. If they had answered my call, I’d have asked them about this 20 percent figure they often cite. They claim the FAST Act would increase food prices by 20 percent. The only problem is their source is a study funded by the industry itself. And it’s widely debunked and discredited by economists. Legit studies from these institutions say changes in food prices would rise by about 2 percent, not 20 percent. None of the bigwigs wanted to sit down for an interview with me.” “Give me the phone. This is Jeff Seal’s mom. Also a journalist. And I’d really appreciate it if you call him back.” “Hell yeah.” [SINGING IN ITALIAN] You know who did have the courage to go on camera? Michaela Mendelsohn, who owns six El Pollo Loco franchises. I sat down to talk with her in April. “We’re squeaking by right now trying to just have enough money to pay our employees and administration. We’ve already increased prices because of inflation. Our transactions are doing a steady decline. We’re not impervious to downturns in economy. During the Great Recession, we lost over half our restaurants and my family home.” “The fast food industry made $20 billion in 2021 in California. McDonald’s is having record profits. I know you’re not McDonald’s. What people would argue is that if you can’t pay your workers a living wage, you don’t have a business model. And I’m not saying you, personally. I’m just saying in general.” “So, California, they came up with a living wage. That was $15 an hour.” “Yeah. That was 2016.” “I welcomed that. I could sleep better when my employees were making a living wage. They also put in a kicker for inflation. So it’s going up. Now you’re telling me there’s a new living wage. We can’t raise prices much more. People can’t afford it.” “McDonald’s said on their sales call —” “Our pricing is up roughly 8 percent.” “— most of their price increases turns into profit for them. They’re making more money.” “We haven’t seen any substantial increase in consumer resistance from this pricing.” “Inflation is hurting consumers more than corporations.” “Not in my experience.” “Not in your experience?” “Why are we singling out one industry? Construction workers are going to be, like, I’m out here working in the hot sun. Across the street they’re getting $20 an hour and I’m getting $18. Why are we getting singled out? I just don’t get it.” “Because 50 percent of the people who work in the fast food industry are on government assistance, for starters.” “Tell me, what’s the percentage of people working at Target or Walmart or —” “I’d be all for minimum —” “You’re still — you’re singling us out.” “Well, I think there should be minimum standard councils for all industries.” “Now, everyone’s going to want that minimum wage.” “If wages went up in all industries, that’d be good. Across the country, workers agree. That’s why states and cities have already passed 12 laws creating minimum standards councils. This year in Minnesota nursing homes, home of some of the worst staffing shortages, workers want a standards council to draft policies for higher pay and benefits. In New York, nail salon workers are fighting for a standards board to raise wages industrywide without killing jobs or shuttering stores. Farmers, Uber drivers and airport workers across the country are fighting for their seat at the table to demand basic rights in their industries. And in California, this September, two years and 450 strikes later, the fast food corporations finally called off the referendum. Workers won, for real this time. I promise a $20 minimum wage and the right to sit on a minimum standards council. We need modern solutions to bring new industries into the labor movement. Can workers seize this moment to reach every corner of our economy by rewriting the rules and telling our richest corporations that this fight ain’t over?” [MUSIC PLAYING]



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