Fast-food workers held rallies across San Jose on Wednesday demanding that lawmakers take action and support their fight against low pay, working conditions and harassment and give them a seat in decision-making processes.

Strikes were held at Carl’s Jr. and KFC locations and at San Jose City Hall.

The fast-food workers’ rally at City Hall began with a song. Close to 200 workers gathered to demand their rights and sang their version of a Mexican song about violence against women, changing the lyrics to refer to the workers’ experiences.

Rallying workers sing at the start of a fast-food workers’ protest at City Hall in San Jose on Wednesday. The group is demanding improved wages and cited incidents of alleged negligence or abuse by employers. (Prachi Singh/Bay City News)

According to data from the group Fight for $15, almost 80 percent of California’s fast-food workers are people of color, more than 60 percent are Latino and two-thirds are women. Fight for $15 started with the demand for $15 wages per hour and union rights for fast-food workers in New York City and now also consists of home health aides, retail employees and underpaid workers and more in many cities around the world.

“During the pandemic, we weren’t treated fairly. We were forced to work with doggy diapers over our face because they didn’t have masks for us,” said Mysheka Ronquillo, a worker at Carl’s Jr. for three years and a leader with the Fight for $15.

“I’ve seen coworkers get shot and they tell them to continue to work.”

Mysheka Ronquillo, fast-food worker

“I’ve seen coworkers get shot and they tell them to continue to work. And so we’re here today to make a stand and to say ‘no more,’ that we don’t want to go to situations like that just to have a job. And we should be respected,” Ronquillo said.

According to Ronquillo, things haven’t changed since the pandemic — the management sweeps the complaints under the rug or promises to respond and then doesn’t.

Taking it to the ballot box

A referendum to undo Assembly Bill 257, also known as the Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act — aimed at raising the wages and improving working conditions for fast-food workers — was approved earlier this year to go on the 2024 ballot, which was also one of the setbacks in the fight, Ronquillo said.

The rally at City Hall was joined by City Councilmembers Omar Torres and Peter Ortiz, along with other community leaders, unions and workers’ nonprofits.

Councilmember Omar Torres, who serves downtown San Jose, speaks at a fast-food workers’ rally at City Hall on Wednesday. (Prachi Singh/Bay City News)

“We are in the midst of a hot labor summer in California and across the state we are seeing bold militant action from workers across all industries,” said Jean Cohen, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, which represents over 10,000 union members and 101 unions in Santa Clara and San Benito counties. “When we stand up for one worker, we stand up for all.”

According to Cohen, despite the workers voicing concerns, the response is not meeting the needs. The workers are asking to have a voice at the table and a policy to ensure that the fast-food workers are protected.

“Our fast-food workers, many of them make an average of $17 an hour, which is outrageous,” said Ortiz, the councilmember. “Any fast-food employer should be ashamed of themselves. They’re making billions of dollars off the backs of their working people.”

Ortiz said he wants to ensure that if people work in the city, they should be able to live and afford to raise a family in the city.

“Often we take the first job we can get when we are new to a country. Even if we are exploited and abused and our health and safety are compromised because we are so willing to work hard for a better life.”

Karla Cruz, Pilipino Association of Workers and Immigrants

Karla Cruz, a caregiver and a member leader of the Pilipino Association of Workers and Immigrants — a group of Filipino workers and immigrants based out of Santa Clara County supporting each other and standing against abuse and exploitation — shared her struggles as an immigrant and a low-wage worker.

“Often we take the first job we can get when we are new to a country,” she said. “Even if we are exploited and abused and our health and safety are compromised because we are so willing to work hard for a better life.”

According to Cruz, Filipinos and Latinos share an organizing history in California. The United Farm Workers union was born out of Filipino and Mexican grape pickers joining together to protest poor and unsafe working conditions and fight for their right to unionize, she said.

“Together, we can win a better economy that respects workers’ rights and hold bad bosses accountable,” Cruz said.

Prachi is a Dow Jones News Fund intern at Bay City News. She is a journalism graduate from University of Southern California. She previously worked at Annenberg Media as a Multimedia Journalist and the Managing Editor. Prachi has covered social justice, climate and human interest stories. She is interested in written and visual storytelling.