Labor organizing involves fighting injustice — on the picket lines, in the streets. When the bosses retaliate — and they always do — workers and unions need to use every resource to fight for their rights.
Thanks to the hard-fought labor struggles of the 1930s, the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, setting up guidelines for basic employee rights. Ever since, when workers find their rights abused or ignored, they raise them with the National Labor Relations Board along with waging strikes, work actions and other forms of protest. Many times the NLRB hasn’t led to justice, but sometimes it has.
But, given the strike of thousands of fast food workers in the U.S. and all over the world in May, labor is on the ascendancy. That’s what a recent NLRB ruling reflects.
On July 29 the NLRB flung open a new door of struggle for the $15-and-a-union campaign and gave it a big boost. The NLRB ruled that McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast food corporation, which in 2012 earned $27.5 billion and banked $5.5 billion in profits, can be held jointly responsible for unfair labor practices and wage violations made by its franchise operators.
Mickey D’s has been hiding behind its “golden arches” franchises, which account for 90 percent of its 14,000 stores in the U.S., ever since low-wage, fast food workers first dared to strike in this country in November 2012. But when the stores retaliated by firing workers, cutting their hours, arranging inconvenient schedules or otherwise punishing them, the workers took their cases to the NLRB.
Of the 181 cases filed since 2012, the NLRB dismissed 74 and found that 43 had merit under the NLRA; 64 are still pending investigation. What the cases revealed was that McDonald’s franchises must follow strict rules about food, cleanliness and employee practices, which, the NLRB ruled, make the parent corporation a joint employer.
The NLRB cited a 1982 federal appeals court ruling that “a company was to be considered a joint employer in situations where two or more employers exerted ‘significant control’ over the same employees.” (nlrb.gov)
Unions immediately applauded the ruling, seeing an opening to help them organize workers at all fast food and retail franchises and in many job categories — like janitors, warehouse truck drivers, airport workers and those at dry cleaners and car dealerships — that rely on subcontractors and temp agencies. The ruling is a boon to the Service Employees union, which has worked tirelessly for several years to organize the 4 million fast food workers in this country.
Of course, industry groups like the National Retail Federation, International Franchise Association and the National Restaurant Association swiftly denounced the ruling as “outrageous.” The NRA called it “an attack on small business.” (restaurant.org)
McDonald’s Senior Vice President Heather Smedstad blasted the ruling, asserting the corporation does not interfere with hiring, wages or other employment matters. But that was contradicted by specific cases. The company reportedly “told a franchise holder it was paying employees too much” and gives franchises software with guidelines about how many employees to use per hour. (New York Times, July 29)
Though McDonald’s and the industry groups contend that the ruling “goes against three decades of law,” they cannot intervene until the workers’ claims are heard by administrative law judges. The Times speculated that if the judges rule against McDonald’s, the company will appeal to the full five-member labor board, and if they lose there, the case could ultimately go to the Supreme Court. And we all know how the anti-labor, pro-corporate court is likely to rule on that.
The struggle to organize low-wage workers won’t be a slam dunk. The corporations are going to marshal all their ruling-class powers — including the police and prisons, as they are doing in the current Boston school bus drivers’ struggle — to protect what they see as their “right” to steal “golden arches” profits from workers’ labor.
But the workers have shown their determination to continue fighting for justice.