Fast food workers rally
Fast-food workers and other SEIU members march on the Capitol to deliver postcards and petitions in support of AB 257 in May. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

Last week, the secretary of state’s office announced that a referendum aimed at overturning California’s landmark law to regulate wages and working conditions for fast food restaurants had qualified for the November 2024 ballot.

While it’s the first measure to qualify for an election more than 15 months hence, it won’t be the last.

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At least a half-dozen initiatives and referenda appear headed for the ballot, all with potentially heavy economic effects that will generate multi-million-dollar campaigns for and against.

Chief among them, in terms of impact inside and outside the state, is the fast food industry referendum to abort a unique regulatory system that, if upheld by voters, could expand to other states and other consumer sectors.

Contending that low-wage fast food workers are exploited and otherwise powerless, unions and other advocates crafted Assembly Bill 257, which would create a 10-member Fast Food Council to set wages and working conditions, only four of whose members would represent franchisees and franchisors.

A coalition of fast food corporations and other business groups, dubbed Save Local Restaurants, immediately launched a drive to collect enough signatures on petitions to place the issue on the ballot.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration attempted to form the council and begin operations as the signatures were being tallied but the industry quickly persuaded a judge to block the move. The law will be suspended until voters have spoken.

It’s evident that the industry will spend what it believes is needed to invalidate AB 257, not only because of its immediate effects in California, but because it could effectively undermine the franchise system in fast foods and other consumer businesses.

The fast food referendum is also indicative of another trend — business increasingly using the ballot to undo efforts by left-leaning legislators to impose more regulation.

Another referendum is another example — an oil industry drive to overturn last year’s Senate Bill 1137, which bans drilling or upgrading oil wells within 3,200 feet of a “sensitive receptor,” such as a school or hospital.

Advocates say the buffer zone is needed to protect health and safety of people in those facilities, but the industry sees it as part of an effort by Newsom and other Democratic politicians to force the industry out of California.

The other four measures likely to make the 2024 ballot are initiatives, to wit:

Another effort by business groups to undo legislation they deem harmful, in this case a 2016 law called the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). It allows employees to file lawsuits against employers alleging violations of state laws governing wages and working conditions, bypassing the Department of Industrial Relations. Business is also waging a battle in the courts over the law.

proposed surtax on personal incomes over $5 million to finance pandemic preparedness, sponsored by some high technology executives. It could have appeared on the 2022 ballot but was postponed due to the presence of another income tax hike, Proposition 30, that failed.

An effort by anti-tax groups to overturn a 2020 state Supreme Court decision that relaxed the vote requirement for local special purpose taxes placed on the ballot via initiative. It also required new state taxes to gain voter approval and reclassified some state fees as taxes.

• A long-pending measure to increase the state’s minimum wage and automatically adjust it to inflation in the future. The measure is opposed by many business groups that are also engaged in the fast food duel and the battle over PAGA.

There are several other measures that that could make it to the 2024 ballot but these are the virtual certainties.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.