For two years now, labor groups have been working on a loud public campaign to improve wages and working conditions for fast food workers. Their campaign has been viewed as quixotic. But yesterday, the government gave them an enormous boost.
The National Labor Relations board ruled yesterday that McDonald's, America's biggest and most symbolically important fast food franchise, "could be held jointly liable for labor and wage violations by its franchise operators"— a ruling that means, in essence, that the company can no longer create the situation in which labor violations flourish, and then foist responsibility for their occurrence off on the individual franchisees. It denies the company the right to use its particular business arrangement with franchises as a way to avoid being held responsible for the way its workers are treated. And, assuming that its standard becomes widely applied to others in the fast food industry, it is a powerful tool for labor groups to wield against the companies that they are trying to organize.
Fast food work is, statistically, the definition of a dead-end job. Even full time workers do not make enough money to escape poverty. The public pays billions of dollars per year in benefits to fast food workers because of their wretchedly low wages. On top of all that, almost all fast food workers say that they have been the victims of wage theft by employers who don't pay them properly for all of the time they work.
Now, that is not just a franchise owner's problem. It is McDonald's problem. And because these problems could potentially cost McDonald's a lot of money—and because it's much easier to deal with a single corporation than with thousands of far-flung stores— they have a much greater likelihood of getting fixed. That is good news for workers, and good news for justice.
A real union at McDonald's would be a great moment in the history of the American Dream.