The law is catching up with Ronald McDonald. On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board issued 13 complaintsinvolving 78 charges by workers that McDonald’s USA, LLC, and many of its franchisees broke the law by interfering with collective efforts to organize and improve working conditions.
The complaints will now go to trial before administrative law judges , who could, for the first time, find McDonald’s guilty of violating workers’ right to organize. Until now, McDonald’s has shielded itself from liability by claiming that it’s not an actual employer. Franchisors argue that although they provide the brand name, products, techniques and other operational necessities, they leave franchisees the discretion to operate as sole employer, responsible for all labor costs, risks and obligations.
What’s so significant about the NLRB’s complaints is that the board defines McDonald’s as a joint employer with its franchisees—and thus sharing responsibility.
That marks a huge victory for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU ), which for two years has funded and helped organize a campaign by fast-food and other retail workers to win $15 an hour and the right to unionize—a movement often known as the Fight for 15, though it has different names in different cities. SEIU helped workers file 291 charges that McDonald’s and franchisees retaliated against workers for participating in Fight for 15 strikes and protests. On Friday the board announced it had found merit in 86 charges that McDonald’s had discriminated against workers engaged in collective action by disciplining them, reducing their hours, discharging them unfairly, threatening them, placing them under surveillance and interrogating them. NLRB investigators resolved a few of the case this fall, filed complaints about 78 of the meritorious charges, and are still looking into 71 more.
It was long unclear whether the SEIU’s investment in Fight for 15 would allow it to formally unionize the sector, whose division into thousands of franchises made organizing a Herculean task. As the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse wrote in July, when the NLRB general counsel first indicated that it was moving in the direction of declaring McDonald’s a joint employer, the definition “open[s] the door for the SEIU to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.”
In total, the joint employer definition could ease the way to unionization for more than 8 million workers in the franchise workforce.
This story was originally published In These Times.