The American worker won a major victory Tuesday. The General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board – a panel tasked with regulating disputes between workers and their employers –ruled that the country’s highest grossing fast food chain, McDonald’s, is “jointly responsible” for certain labor violations at its restaurants.
But without the workers’ grassroots activism, the decision never would have happened. Starting in November 2012, employees at McDonald’s and other fast food chains began to hold strikes for higher wages and the right to form a union. Fast food workers earn an average of $9.09 an hour – barely above the minimum wage – forcing more than half to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. but when these workers returned to work, many either had their hours cut or were fired.
Fast food chains have historically escaped responsibility for poor pay and benefits through franchises—wherein stores are operated and often owned by separate business entities. The workers appealed to the NLRB, saying McDonald’s was equally as responsible for their employment as the franchise owner.
Their proof? McDonald’s can – and does – tell its franchises that they are paying their employees too much. It also takes employees off the clock–for minutes or sometimes hours–in order to hit its daily profit targets. And McDonald’s owns many of its franchises’ real estate.
Tuesday, the NLRB’s counsel said the workers were right: in 43 (ADD HYPERLINK TO ARTICLE) of their cases, McDonalds qualifies as a “joint employer. “ For its part, McDonald’s described the ruling as “…wrong.” In a statement, Senior Vice President Heather Smedstad wrote, “This decision changes the rules for thousands of small businesses, and goes against decades of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States.”
But McDonald’s is not an outlier—nor is the fast food industry. Over the past few decades, contractors, temp agencies and franchises have steadily begun to replace full time employment as the norm. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that temp employees increased from 1.1 million to 2.3 million between 1990 and 2008. As this happened, workers’ pay has stagnated; and unionization has declined. But with a joint employer, it becomes easier for workers to organize—meaning the NLRB decision could have effects far beyond McDonald’s.