Companies are constantly seeking ways to lower their payrolls. These methods inevitably end up screwing workers. But there are signs that the government may at last be ready to ask companies to take responsibility for their own employees.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald's could be held liable for labor violations by the people who own its franchises—an important ruling that could make it much harder for large corporations to avoid responsibility for the way they keep wages down, just by claiming that their franchisees control that aspect of the business. For a labor movement that has been protesting fast food franchises nationwide for years now, it was an encouraging sign.

Now, the Wall Street Journal says that the NLRB may be ready to issue another ruling that could make it more difficult for companies to force employees into "contract employee" designations (often by using outside staffing companies, which are growing each year) that serve to give employers all the benefits of having employees, without the responsibilities that go along with actually having real live full-time employees. From the WSJ:

Unions say such arrangements enable companies to exercise control over wages and working conditions but escape responsibility when workers have problems or demands. But as labor groups ask the five-member NLRB to declare more companies joint employers, business groups are fighting back, saying such moves could defeat the efficiencies of contracting and expose companies to greater liability in labor matters.

(In semi-related news, an appeals court in California just ruled that thousands of FedEx drivers are legally employees, not independent contractors.)

The unions are right. And so are the companies! Because all the companies are saying here is, "We would rather not be held responsible for these contract workers, because the whole reason we hired all those contract workers in the first place was to avoid being held responsible for things!"

The entire "contract worker"/ staffing company industry is in essence a middleman that collects fees in exchange for helping corporations avoid certain responsibilities for their workers, and it does not do much at all to help the vast majority of workers, so it is hard to have very much sympathy for it at all.

[Photo: AP]