The first round of hearings over alleged labor law violations by McDonald’s and its franchisees begins Monday in New York.
The hearings, at the regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board, are the second phase of a union-backed campaign aimed at bringing McDonald’s to the negotiating table over wages, benefits and working conditions. The first phase involved street demonstrations calling for a $15 hourly wage.
At the heart of the campaign is the workers’ contention that McDonald’s and its franchisees are joint employers. The Service Employees International Union wants to help workers negotiate with McDonald’s.
Monday’s hearing is largely expected to deal with orders to produce evidence and other procedural matters. The NLRB’s general counsel, who ruled in July that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, is expected to explain his reasoning and present evidence that backs his finding.
“What everybody is expecting is that the general counsel is trying to broaden the category of joint employers to include entities, companies, that don’t directly control the employees’ wages, hours and working conditions, and it would be great to see what his theory is,” said Martin Malin, a professor of labor law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
McDonald’s is expected to contest the designation, maintaining that its franchisees are independent owner-operators who set their own policies and wages. McDonald’s did not respond to requests for comment about Monday’s hearing.
Franchise businesses have said a joint-employer designation would be “devastating.” Franchise owners have said they operate as small businesses, and feel they would lose autonomy and be forced to follow orders from corporate headquarters if a joint-employer designation is upheld. They have said such a ruling would affect other franchise businesses and put at risk millions of jobs.
An administrative law judge will preside over the New York hearings; opening arguments aren’t expected until May. The same judge will also preside over hearings in other regions. Dates for those hearings have yet to be set.
Whatever the decision, the losing party is expected to appeal to the five-member NLRB in Washington. That ruling could be appealed in federal court.
A ruling by the board would not have a direct effect on other labor laws, which vary in their definitions of a joint employer, but it could be used as a foundation to further the designation.
The NLRB hearings stem from 19 complaints issued by the general counsel alleging that McDonald’s and some of its franchisees retaliated against workers who engaged in activities protected under federal labor law, including nationwide protests calling for higher wages and better working conditions. Retaliation included threats, surveillance, reduction of hours, interrogations and firings, according to the complaints. In total, the complaints outline 101 unfair labor practice charges.
The workers who filed charges are members of labor groups funded by SEIU. The administrative law judge will hear testimony from those workers throughout the hearings.
The Fight for 15 campaign also is pushing the joint-employer designation in suits filed in federal and state courts. Fight for 15 this month announced it had also filed complaints against McDonald’s with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging workers have been injured because of a lack of training and protective equipment.
The Fight for 15 campaign was launched in 2012 with protests against the fast-food industry in New York. The campaign spread to cities across the United States and expanded to include other low-wage workers such as child care workers, adjunct professors and janitors.
The campaign, supported by local labor and community groups, has had success in pushing for higher minimum wages. This year, 20 states and Washington, D.C., raised their minimum wages to $8 to $10 an hour Jan. 1. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
It also has won minimum wage law increases in cities including Chicago. The minimum wage in Chicago will gradually rise to $13 an hour in 2019 from the current $8.25 an hour, Illinois’ minimum wage. The first increase, to $10 an hour, takes effect July 1.