US fast food workers get a legal boost
A ruling this week in the USA by the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has given a boost to unions, and the ‘alt.unions’ who are trying to build union organisation in the US fast food industry. The ruling, in theory, should make it easier for these unions to negotiate on behalf of workers at fast-food chains – providing they can organise workers first.
AFLCIO President Richard Trumka greeted the decision by saying:
“This decision may very well signal the beginning of the end of outdated laws that fail to address an economic structure tilted against working people. It means more working people can engage in meaningful collective bargaining by bringing all parties who control their wages and other conditions of employment to the table.”
Union organising in the fast food industry has largely been centred around ‘alt.unions’, self organised groups who have taken ‘guerilla’ action with stoppages backed up by demonstrations across major US cities in support of decent working conditions, respect at work and a minimum wage of $15 per hour. The alt.unions have been supported by community and faith groups as well as the mainstream US unions and the AFL-CIO, but the unions have not tried to take them over or run their campaigns.
The NLRB ruled that fast foot chains and their franchisees are ‘joint employers’ of workers and that unions representing these workers should be legally entitled to bargain with the parent company, not just the contractor, under federal labour law. The ruling, which had been presaged last December, was handed down after a 3-2 vote and was immediately attacked by Republicans who called on the US Congress to over rule the vote. It is also anticipated that employers such as McDonald’s and Burger King are likely to legally challenge the decision.
The NLRB changed the definition of the employer-employee relationship linking the owners and the franchise operator, which could mean if workers at a fast-food restaurant run by a franchisee formed a union they would be entitled to bargain not just with the owner of the individual restaurant but also with the corporate headquarters. The NLRB said:
“It is not the goal of joint employer law to guarantee the freedom of employers to insulate themselves from their legal responsibility to workers, while maintaining control of the workplace. Such an approach has no basis in the act or in federal labour policy.”
The fast food and franchise lobby have been worried about such as ruling arguing that the decision ‘would doom the business model’. Franchisers argue that naming parent companies as ‘joint employers’ would force them to take more control from their franchisees to contend with new liabilities. Business groups reacted with typically over-the-top statements warning that there would be a ‘devastating impact’ on economy.
Nonetheless this is an important decision and one which Marshall B. Babson, a lawyer for the US Chamber of Commerce, described as
“One of the more significant by the NLRB in the last 35 years. Depending on how the board applies its new ‘indirect test,’ it will likely ensnare an ever-widening circle of employers and bargaining relationships.”