ST. LOUIS - On the heels of what many are calling a historic convention of over 1,200 fast food workers held in the Chicago suburbs last weekend, the campaign for "$15 and a union" won a major National Labor Relations Board decision that, if upheld, could have significant repercussions throughout the industry - and dramatically change the organizing landscape in favor of low-wage fast food workers.
The NLRB's general council on Tuesday ruled that McDonald's could be held "jointly accountable" for labor and wage violations by its franchise operators. Undoubtedly, other fast food chains are paying close attention, as they could potentially face similar rulings.
Of the thousands of McDonald's restaurants in the United States, roughly 90 percent are owned by franchise operators, a fact McDonald's routinely emphasizes in its attempts to stifle demands for higher wages, better benefits and dignity and respect on the job. McDonald's claims wages, hours and benefits are set by franchises owners.
Jeanina Jenkins, a St. Louis McDonald's employee, told People's World, "McDonald's can't hide behind their franchises anymore."
Jenkins, a member of the fast food workers national organizing committee, has worked at McDonald's for 2 ½ years. She is currently making $7.97 an-hour and is scheduled an average of 15 to 20 hours a week. "Hardly enough time or money to help take care of my family - my mother, sister and niece," she said.
According to Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas, "Employers like McDonald's seek to avoid recognizing the rights of their employees by claiming that they are not really their employer, despite exercising control over crucial aspects of the employment relationship." If the recent ruling is upheld, "McDonald's should no longer be able to hide behind its franchisees."
In all, McDonald's employs nearly one million people in the U.S. Turnover is about 150 percent. And while the average fast food worker makes about $8 an-hour, McDonald's CEO, Donald Thompson, made a staggering $9.5 million last year.
The NLRB ruling came after its investigation of 181 claims spanning 20 months, accusing McDonald's and its franchise operators of unfair labor practices, including illegally firing, threatening and otherwise penalizing workers for pro-union activities. The charges were filed in 17 different cities, including St. Louis.
The ruling couldn't come at a worse time for the fast food behemoth, which brings in $27 billion annually in revenue, as fast food workers at the recent convention agreed to dramatically escalate their tactics and organize a wave of civil disobedience actions against fast food chains in the coming months - actions that will undoubtedly bring more attention to the industry's poverty wages and poor working conditions.
"We will do anything, whatever it takes to get $15 and a union," Jenkins added. "Workers are very engaged and ready to do anything, even get arrested."
Jenkins said convention participants were "amped-up and excited," ready to take on the fast food Goliath.
"We are all leaders. We're going to keep building this movement and expand it until they pay us more and we get a union. This is our struggle. This is everybody's struggle. We're in this together. We're going to win."
"The convention was the bomb," Rasheen Aldridge, a St. Louis area strike leader, told peoplesworld.org. "It was great to see so many folks from so many different cities fired-up and ready to go.
"It really showed our growth as a movement and helped us gear-up for the next round of strikes. We're working together state by state, city by city, building solidarity."
In all, fast food workers from 30 cities attended the convention. They discussed tactics and where to go from here. And ultimately, agreed to embark on an unprecedented wave of civil disobedience.
"We're building an army of fast food workers," Aldridge concluded. "We're going to do whatever it takes to win."
Ultimately, the NLRB ruling will be taken to administrative law judges. If the judges uphold the ruling McDonald's is likely to appeal to the five-member labor board in Washington, D.C. The case could potentially end up in the Supreme Court.
Additionally, the favorable NLRB decision comes as the AFL-CIO executive council meets to discuss a number of issues critical to working people, including union organizing.
"Under President Obama the NLRB has been getting better and better at issuing rulings that help workers. Remember though that this is as it should be. The NLRB, under U.S labor law, is there to protect and extend collective bargaining rights. This ruling will go far to help do that," said Bill Samuels the AFL-CIO's legislative director.
Companies like McDonald's will have a harder time avoiding responsibility for violating labor law and blocking union organizing efforts.
While the workers suing McDonald's are not union members yet, they do belong to a voluntary membership organization that does not have collective bargaining rights, like traditional unions.
However, "These organizations are going to be very important to the future of labor organizing in America," said Larry Cohen, director of organizing for the AFL-CIO and president of the Communications Workers Union of America. "We're going to see more and more of this kind of organizing."
One fast food leader put it like this: "The business community is scared. This ruling has far-reaching implications on all types of work, not just the fast food industry. They are pretty freaked out."
Photo: St. Louis fast food workers strike for higher wages, better working conditions and a right to unionize, July 2013. (PW)