Looking More Closely at the NLRB’s New Joint Employer Standard

10666801h1290937*750xx900-507-0-0Kiln, Mississippi    Lawyers on all sides of the issue will have millions of words and make millions of dollars parsing, arguing, advocating, and appealing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision to establish a new standard to determine what constitutes joint employer status, but for many workers and, to modify an old expression, the organizers that love them, let’s take a closer look at the actual decision and see what it offers in plain and simple instructions about how to determine whether or not joint employer status exists. Luckily, the decision is written very carefully in the expectation of appeals, so it rewards closer review.

I enjoyed the fact that the NLRB broke through the legal mumbo-jumbo to clearly state in so many words that this was an 800-pound gorilla of a problem too large to continue to ignore. Embedded in the decision is the reality of the modern evisceration of a stable workplace. The Board notes that contingent work now represents 4.1% of total employment in the USA or 5.7 million workers. Temporary employment is 2% of total employment and another 2.87 million workers. On the coasts they can prattle about the new so-called “gig” economy, but the NLRB makes it clear with these numbers that such workers are working without any net of protection or in most situations representation. Without expressly saying so, the NLRB essentially is refusing to continue to support a fiction that unions have any practical or proportionate power at the bargaining table, despite there being a long standing standard for how unions can organize temporary workers that determines the bargaining unit based on an average of hours worked over succeeding 13 week periods averaging the required minimum hours in that period to not be considered casual, but to be determined as employees, albeit temporary.

As we have frequently noted, the new standard elevates indirect control and authority, even if not explicitly exercised, to the status of joint employment. In determining under the new standard whether or not a company is a joint employer with their subcontractors of course setting wages and hours is the brightest line. The NLRB adds to those potential tests the question of whether or not the company establishes the number of workers on the job, has input or authority around scheduling, seniority, overtime, or assigning work and standards. The examples in the decision not only from the Browning-Ferris case under review but also others that are mentioned are very helpful, and include, not surprisingly, examples of how building owners effectively control the janitors working for cleaning companies.

These examples add other “tests” worth listening for including when a contractor recommends discipline or termination of individual workers, rules mandating that a subcontractor worker cannot be paid more than the contractor’s own employees doing similar work, determining when the machines operated by the subcontractor workers turn on or off, and drug, professional, and other testing requirements for subcontract workers. All of these conditions were evident in this BFI recycling case, but many organizers will also recognize many of them as common in representative situations. I can’t even count the number of grievances we have handled in buildings, on garbage trucks, in university cafeterias, school yards, and elsewhere where Local 100 is opposing a termination in the final step and being greeted by a shrug from an employer that the property owner had demanded the action for one reason or another so what choice did they have other than to do what the real boss said or lose the contract. Where there are multiple locations, it often has meant that we agree to reassign the worker away from a problematic worksite or supervisor. I will never forget winning a case for a worker years ago at Tulane University where a Tulane administrator wanted a young woman fired because she didn’t smile enough on the cafeteria line. On that one Tulane had to eat it, so to speak, and she became an outstanding steward for us and a union organizer who had great success in organizing California home care workers for several years.

Franchisee operators can sweat this new decision, but they are not mentioned anywhere. The real beneficiaries immediately are these millions of workers in contingent and temporary employment who are little more than working scams where someone bigger wanted to sweat the same work down to lower wages, less liability and workman’s compensation. The decision changes the game allowing the union, if and when there is one, to force the real employer to the table to bargain on those issues where they have or are exercising control.

As long as it lasts, we’re catching a major break for millions of workers here, if we’re willing and able to do the work to get them organized.

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NLRB Joint Employer Decision is Huge for Subcontracted Workers

Auto worker celebrate the victory of the UAW-CIO in the Ford National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. 1941

Auto worker celebrate the victory of the UAW-CIO in the Ford National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. 1941

New Orleans The NLRB on the last day when it had enough members to issue rulings before its one Republican member’s resignation took effect issued what could be a momentous decision, if allowed to stand, by returning the definition of co-employer status to pre-1980 interpretations. The headlines are saying this decision creates a path for organizing fast food workers. I’ll have to think about that. It definitely clarifies bargaining relationships, but one centralized corporate entity has not meant there has been a smooth path for organizing Walmart or other major retailers, and their workforces are larger by a factor of ten, compared to most fast food stands. We’ll see whether there’s any union that wants to step up to the task now, but as I’ve argued previously, the NLRB organizing route will still be unattractive to any union not willing to make a twenty to thirty year investment in such a strategy. The real impact of this decision will be for the gazillion subcontracted workers, temporary workers, casual workers and their precarious grasp on their jobs and the fragile and fraught bargaining positions of their unions working with them to protect and advance their interests.

The decision was brought on a case involving Browning-Ferris or BFI as most of us know the outfit. Along with Waste Management they are one of the huge companies that have marketed and benefited from the push for municipal privatization of sanitation and recycling services in the USA. The little known reality of such privatization by the taxpayers in these cities is that most of the labor, usually all but the truck drivers, is subcontracted out to temporary employment services. The Teamsters in this case organized the subcontracted recycling center workers and, correctly, wanted to push BFI to the table since they controlled pretty much everything about the job.

Local 100 United Labor Unions knows this routine intimately. Almost twenty years ago when we organized hundreds of minimum wage laborers on the back of Waste Management garbage trucks throughout south Louisiana cities in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Baton Rouge it was front page news in The Wall Street Journal. We won all of the elections but only after losing a hearing at the NLRB where we tried to force Waste Management to be named a co-employer. Later in winning the contract the temporary company admitted to us that they had perjured themselves at the hearing because Waste Management had told them it would cancel their contract if they were named a joint employer. By that time we had won huge wage and benefit increases by exploiting the fact that as semi-casual workers our members could simply decide they were tired and not come to work and by demonstrating how that worked in July as garbage sat rotting and stinking in heat and humidity, we closed the contract at 11 PM one night to keep the trucks rolling and the hoppers, as the laborers were called, slinging the cans into the truck. We organized similar workers in Dallas who in fact were called gunslingers there.

Regardless the wink-and-nod dodge of these companies has meant that we have had to reorganize them time after time. We have a huge case still pending before the NLRB on one company. This same situation exists in tens of thousands of other situations where companies routinely evoke 30-day cancellations when a union is organized. Pushing the joint employer buttons years ago led to the first victories in Pittsburgh for the Justice for Janitors campaign when building owners buckled, and that same reality has triggered other successes where property owners were pressured successfully, though before this new decision at some risk of secondary boycott charges. Now they will likely either have to employ the workers directly or stand up and carry their burdens. Same for hotels that have subbed out their housekeepers, schools that flip over their custodial and food service contractors, nursing homes that do the same, and on and on and on. The huge percentage of wage theft and unfair labor practice claims that are never collected because the subcontracts have collapsed may now finally come due as well.

It will be interesting to see whether or not public employers can be forced to the table as well. That’s one worth watching.

So who knows when and how this might impact fast food workers other than to make McDonalds and the like liable for unfair labor practices, but, regardless, this is huge for the vast millions of part-time, contingent workers on subcontracts everywhere.

For workers – and their unions – this is a game changer.

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I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister ( Almanac Singers )

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