Economy

Michigan Burger King Caught Retaliating Against Pro-Union Workers

CREDIT: AP/M. Spencer Green

Striking workers outside a Chicago Burger King hold signs saying "We are worth more" in Spanish

Workers who talked about unions and protests on the job at a Detroit-area Burger King got disciplined and threatened in retaliation, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled this week.

A manager accused an off-duty worker of violating store policy against solicitations by asking coworkers to fill out union questionnaires during their breaks — a policy the NLRB judge says is illegal to begin with — and then sent the same worker home from her shift later that day for “not placing pickles on sandwiches in a perfect square as she was supposed to.” The judge also found that the owners of the fast food stores attempted to prohibit workers from talking about the idea of forming a union or about strike-related activities while at work, but did not prohibit other non-work conversation during those times.

Retaliatory discipline, like sending someone home for union activity, is prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the judge ordered the company that owns the Burger King in question to take a number of steps to remedy the violations.

Fast food workers around the country have gone on strike repeatedly over the past two years, seeking a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions. They are not the only low-wage workers to conduct organized protests and strikes and face retaliation in that time, as Walmart has also been hit with labor organizing efforts and struggled to toe the line between fighting the union and violating labor law. But the fast food sector is the center of the low-wage organizing world right now, with strikes spreading from New York City in 2012 to all corners of the country by last spring.

Workers are trying to raise the stakes by employing civil disobedience. Hundreds of striking workers and solidarity protesters were arrested on a nationwide strike day at the beginning of September.

The pressure fast food workers are exerting on their employers has the potential to reshape the business model on which the industry relies. Currently, companies allow franchisees to operate branded stores in exchange for annual fees. This model also insulates the corporate center from legal responsibility for the labor conditions in franchise stores.

That insulation is thinning, however. The NLRB’s top lawyer determined over the summer that McDonald’s exerts so much control over franchisees through the rules of its contracts that the corporate headquarters should be named as a co-employer in any labor law enforcement actions involving McDonald’s franchisees.

If that redefinition of the franchising relationship spreads throughout the industry, decisions like the one issued this week in Michigan could bring penalties to corporate treasuries as well as franchisee profits. By removing the legal buffer of franchise contracts, the NLRB would expose fast food shareholders to the costs of labor unrest. That could help pressure the companies into meeting worker demands.

CEOs in the fast food business are paid 1,200 times more than their workers. Wage theft is unusually prevalent in the industry, with roughly 9 in 10 workers reporting at least one form of illegal wage and hour violations in one survey earlier this year. Many people think of fry cooks and fast food cash register operators as young people looking to make pocket money, but at this point that stereotype is out of date. The vast majority of low-wage workers are adults, and many of them have children to feed. One in every 5 American children has a parent who would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $10.00 an hour.