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NLRB action against McDonald’s is a victory for workers

Making the case for franchisor “joint employer” status

On December 19th, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel Richard Griffin issued 13 complaints, involving 78 charges, against McDonald’s USA. The action follows Griffin’s July finding that the fast food giant is a “joint employer” along with its franchisees, and therefore potentially liable for violations of labor law committed at those restaurants.

McDonald’s responded by saying that the NLRB counsel’s actions “strike at the heart of the franchise system.”

“A system that allows huge corporations to hide behind small franchisees deserves to be challenged,” countered National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Executive Director Mary Vogel. “Many large franchisors should be held accountable not only for anti-union activities, but – where appropriate – for safety and health violations.”

The NLRB only regulates unfair labor practices -- such as retaliation against employees who are trying to organize for improved working conditions. But a recent court case bolsters the arguments of advocates who support a wider application of the “joint employer” rubric. In a recent suit claiming safety negligence at a Hardee’s fast food restaurant, a West Virginia federal district judge reached essentially the same conclusion as Griffin – that large franchisors act as, and have the responsibilities of, employers.

The suit, brought by the mother of Hardee’s employee Nathaniel Hamrick, asserts that her son “suffered first- and second-degree burns in 2011 while trying to clean a hot fryer box without training and with inadequate gloves.”

The St. Louis-based Hardee’s Restaurants, LLC asked the court to dismiss charges against them, saying they were not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, and therefore not liable for Hamrick’s injuries. But Judge Thomas E. Johnston wrote in his September 19th decision:

“...it is reasonable for the Court to infer... that the Franchisor Defendants had actual knowledge of alleged unsafe working conditions which were of long standing and much complained about at the Hardee's franchise in question” and “had control over the equipment and procedures which contributed to Hamrick's injury and that their conduct created a risk of physical harm to Hamrick.”

As a result, the suit will now be heard with Hardee’s Restaurants as a co-defendant. Meanwhile, both Judge Johnston and the NLRB are beginning to set the precedents that will expand workers’ abilities to fight – in courts and at the bargaining table -- for their rights, health, and safety.

McDonald’s workers strike for union rights in New York City in September.
Photo courtesy of Fast Food Forward.

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