A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

NLRB finds merit in McDonald’s charges, issues complaints

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 15, 16 or 17

Faced with ongoing violations of labor law by McDonald’s, the National Labor Relations Board's top enforcement officer on Dec. 19 filed formal complaints against the fast-food giant and its franchises in 13 cases nationwide, including disputes in Illinois.

If negotiations don't resolve the cases, which originally involved 86 charges by workers, the NLRB on March 30 will start trial proceedings against McDonald's in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, according to the labor board’s General Counsel, Richard Griffin.

It’s significant because McDonald's is one of the nation's largest low-wage employers, and its workers have led the movement for better wages for fast-food workers, Wal-Mart workers, port truck drivers, taxi drivers and other low-wage workers.

“McDonald’s USA, LLC and certain franchisees violated the rights of employees working at McDonald’s restaurants at various locations around the country by, among other things, making statements and taking actions against them for engaging in activities aimed at improving their wages and working conditions, including participating in nationwide fast-food worker protests about their terms and conditions of employment during the past two years,” Grffin said in a statement issued by his office.

NLRB trials on complaints are heard by administrative law judges, who could find McDonald’s guilty of violating workers’ right to organize, the first such victory for their workers. Until this move, McDonald’s and similar employers have said they’re not liable for labor-law violations because they’re not the actual employers. Such franchisers say they may provide products, techniques, brands and operational requirements, but franchises have discretion to operate as employers and therefore are responsible for labor relations.

Unsurprisingly, the International Franchise Association said 82 percent of responses to a member survey said the potential impact could be “significant.”

The Service Employees International Union helped McDonald’s workers file 291 charges that the corporation and its franchisees retaliated against workers for participating in “Fight for 15” protests. In the last two years, the NLRB found 86 of the charges have merit and NLRB staff tried to settle them, but “those efforts have largely been unsuccessful,” it said. It subsequently consolidated them into the 13 complaints.

“Meritorious allegations of unlawful conduct committed by McDonald’s franchisees and/or their franchisor, McDonald’s USA, LLC, occurring in more than one, and often multiple, locations around the country include: discriminatory discipline, reductions in hours, discharges, and other coercive conduct directed at employees in response to union and protected concerted activity, including threats, surveillance, interrogations, promises of benefit, and overbroad restrictions on communicating with union representatives or with other employees about unions and the employees’ terms and conditions of employment,” the NLRB said.

Griffin in July ruled that McDonald’s could be held jointly liable for labor and wage violations by its franchisers, which could help more than 8 million workers unionize.

Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, New York City’s arm of Fight for 15, said that the NLRB decision “underscores what most everyone recognizes as common sense: McDonald’s is the employer and responsible for what goes on at its restaurants. McDonald’s exerts such extreme control over franchises that to all extents, McDonald’s is the boss.”

The right to “concerted activity” and collective action is a basic labor right, protecting workers trying to have some influence in holding employers accountable, according to In These Times senior editor David Moberg, a Galesburg native.

“There are hopeful signs that the NLRB may further expand the definition of joint employer,” Moberg said. “In a case involving the waste disposal company Browning-Ferris Industries and a subcontractor, the NLRB is considering moving back to a broader definition of ‘joint employer’ that prevailed until 1984, when an NLRB with a majority made up of Ronald Reagan’s appointments significantly narrowed the definition.”

Besides the three initial trials, the labor board also found “joint employer” violations by McDonald's and franchise-holders at locations covered by the agency's regional offices in Indianapolis, St. Louis and eight other cities. Proceedings in those cities could start after the first three trials.

“The NLRB setting the precedent of ‘joint employer’ in the case of McDonald’s, and potentially broadening it with the case of Browning-Ferris, could be important steps towards closing loopholes that employers have used to weaken and impoverish millions of workers,” Moberg said.

[PICTURED: St. Louis protestors demonstrate at a McDonald's there. Photo from AFL-CIO.]

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