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Fast-Food Workers Are One Crucial Step Closer to Unionizing

The ruling allows employees of McDonald's, Burger King, and other franchises to negotiate with the parent company.

Light Brigading/Flickr

Late yesterday the National Labor Relations Board ruled 3-2 that contract workers and employees of franchised business units could negotiate with the parent company for better pay and benefits. The expected ruling is a landmark decision for unions and millions of fast food workers in America who have never before had this right. Fast food workers — including the millions that McDonald's employs — have been locked in a difficult situation. Their ability to put pressure on either franchise owners (a fractionalized group) or the restaurant's parent company was largely limited to public protests and appeals to the press. In order to unionize, they would need the express permission from each franchise unit operator — a tedious process that was unlikely to yield cooperation. To be clear, there has been no law prohibiting fast food workers' unionization, but the process has been prohibitively difficult.

And so, for the past few years, fast food workers and other service employees have marched in protest of their low wages. Headlined by Fight for $15 — a movement run and financed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — fast food workers have taken to the streets in increasingly larger numbers in the past year. Though the National Labor Relations Board was ruling on a case involving contract employees as part of a Teamsters Union in California, the ruling involves a key redefinition that affects millions of fast food workers who worked for a company's franchise.

The AP writes that the board would now evaluate whether a party would qualify as "a joint employer" based on factors such as "whether the party exercised control over the terms of employment indirectly through an intermediary, or whether it has reserved the authority to do so." The original rules stipulated that to be considered employers, the party must have "exercised direct operational and supervisory control." The National Labor Relations Board noted that more than 2.8 million workers in the U.S. were employed through "temporary agencies" or franchised units last summer, and that its previous definition of a joint employer — a definition that is more than 30 years old — has "failed to keep pace with changes in the workplace and economic circumstances."

The New York Times reports that the vote was along partisan lines, and that business groups immediately "called on the Republican-controlled Congress to overturn it." It is still possible for McDonald's and other large fast food companies to take the ruling to a higher court; last week, the National Labor Relations Board rejected McDonald's appeal on this ruling when it was first proposed.

Meanwhile, several cities across the country have voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, bypassing the federal government's minimum. SeattleLos Angeles, and San Francisco all passed new minimum wage mandates. In New York, where state law makes it difficult to change the minimum across the board, governor Cuomo raised the minimum for fast food workers, or workers who are employed at chain restaurants. The definitions surrounding this decision are still up in the air, but it's clear that the millions of fast food workers who have been crying for more equitable — if possibly unsustainable — wages and increased rights are being heard.