Black Eye for McDonald’s, Potentially Big Win for American Workers

Business as usual in the fast-food world just got a big kick in the kneecaps. Hooray!

Attorneys for workers at McDonald's have filed class-action suits in three states stuffed with complaints about how the company illegally ripped off employee wages in a variety of ways, from calling people in yet forcing them to wait to clock in to charging for the cost of uniforms.

Most of more than 14,000 McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. are owned and operated by franchisees, a practice also followed by other chains like Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut (owned by Yum Brands). This allows the companies to pretend that they have nothing to do with issues like wage violations at franchised locations. But this argument has never really washed, because the company is deeply involved in setting up how these businesses are run, down to the uniforms and training manuals.

Micah Wissinger, an attorney who represents McDonald’s workers in New York City, explained to BusinessWeek that the company even uses “computer systems that measure and track every aspect of the store’s operations.”

McDonald’s and other fast-food companies have sought to have it both ways.

But on Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board put its foot down. The NLRB said that the fast-food behemoth could be named as a joint employer in several complaints regarding worker rights at franchise-owned restaurants. That means that McDonald's Corp. could be liable for abusive management practices in those locations.

This development has come in the wake of a nationwide push to get fast-food restaurants to pay workers a decent wage and stop blocking their right to unionize. Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times suggests that the ruling, “if upheld, would disrupt longtime practices in the fast-food industry and ease the way for unionizing nationwide.

Naturally, business groups are howling, and McDonald's USA has vowed to fight the ruling.

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