A legal opinion issued by the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday could go a long way toward addressing a root cause of income inequality: the low wages and inadequate benefits of fast-food employees. Such workers make up a large percentage of the working poor — people who work full time but don’t earn enough to cover basic expenses. Many earn so little that they’re eligible for public assistance. Taxpayers cover the cost of benefits that their employers should be picking up.
In declaring that, in labor disputes, McDonald’s could be treated as a “joint employer” along with its franchisees, the NLRB opened the door for unified protests and perhaps even union organizing across the entire McDonald’s empire in the United States, as well as those of other fast-food chains with a similar franchise model. In the past, fast-food chains insisted that decisions on wages and working conditions were made by the franchise owners, and that any complaints or organizing efforts should be directed at each owner individually. (McDonald’s has 14,000 US outlets, 90 percent of which have independent owners.) The company vowed to fight the NLRB’s decision, declaring that it “changes the rules for thousands of small businesses.” But the decision is mainly changing — or, rather, clarifying — the rules for McDonald’s itself.
This isn’t a shocking legal stretch. McDonald’s maintains tight control of the menu, cooking standards, cleanliness, and atmosphere of its franchises. It clearly recognizes that customer loyalty depends on consistency among all McDonald’s outlets. Labor standards also bear strongly on the overall McDonald’s experience, so holding the chain responsible for the treatment of the workers in its franchises is merely a logical extension of what all customers recognize when they approach the golden arches: The restaurant is a McDonald’s, and operates under the aegis of the McDonald’s corporation.