Landmark Labor Case Against McDonald’s Moves Forward

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Landmark Labor Case Against McDonald’s Moves Forward

Nina Liss-Schultz

Monday marked an important step in a landmark labor case that could bring greater corporate accountability and worker protections, as a federal agency moved to consider whether McDonald's should be held responsible for what employees call poor working conditions.

Monday marked an important step in a landmark labor case that could bring greater corporate accountability and worker protections, as a federal agency moved to consider whether McDonald’s should be held responsible for what employees call poor working conditions.

More than 300 unfair labor practice charges have been brought against the fast food giant since November 2012, when hundreds of demonstrators in New York City began demanding better working conditions. McDonald’s has been accused of leveling a backlash against those pushing for higher wages and better workplace conditions.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in December to move forward with about 80 of those charges by bringing complaints against the company, and on Monday the board took up consideration of the consolidated case. The case is notable because the NLRB will be for the first time treating McDonald’s as a “joint employer,” meaning that the corporation can be held liable for labor law violations committed by its franchises.

The complaints allege that McDonald’s “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,” according to the NLRB’s announcement.

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The labor board’s general counsel, Richard F. Griffin Jr., said in July that the fast food company would be tried jointly based on evidence that it orders franchises to comply with rules on food, cleanliness, and employment practices.

Employees in March 2014 filed seven class-actions accusing McDonald’s of widespread wage theft, linking the company’s responsibility to the franchise owners by showing how the company monitored labor costs at all its stores through a computer system.

A federal civil rights lawsuit alleged in January that ten former McDonald’s employees experienced “rampant racial and sexual harassment, committed by the restaurants’ highest-ranking supervisors” at three McDonald’s restaurants in Virginia. The plaintiffs said they complained to McDonald’s corporate office, but that their complaints were ignored.

Company workers are being backed by the Service Employees International Union and labor rights advocates, who hailed the July decision as paving the way for increased worker protections.

“McDonald’s can try to hide behind its franchises, but today’s determination by the NLRB shows there’s no two ways about it: The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,” Micah Wissinger, a lawyer who filed complaints on behalf of several of the company’s workers, told the New York Times following the July decision. “The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchises to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.”

If the ruling goes in their favor, worker advocates say McDonald’s employees might finally have the leverage needed to convince the company to raise wages and organize unions.

McDonald’s has maintained that the NLRB has overstepped its authority in trying the company jointly, saying in a December statement that the NLRB’s actions “improperly and dramatically strike at the heart of the franchise systema system that creates economic opportunity, jobs and income for thousands of business owners and their employees across the country.”

“McDonald’s has taken the appropriate measures, working properly with its independent franchisees, to defend against the attack on its business,” the company said.