NLRB Ruling May Not Ease Organizing, but Could Reduce Precariousness of Labor

mcdonald-mascotNew Orleans    The decision of the U.S. General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that McDonald’s acts as a “joint employer” in relation to its franchisees and therefore bears some responsibility for unfair labor practices by those franchisees is stirring extensive debate, all of which is good for workers, whatever the current outcome and final determinations in the future after endless litigation. Simply put, one of the many modern crises faced by workers has been the tenuous and often uncertain relationship to their employers making them more temporary, more contingent, and more precarious. Attaching a lifeline more firmly back to the original decisions makers, the ultimate paymasters, and the deepest pockets with the most to lose can’t do anything put help such workers and create some semblance of stability no matter how slight.

According to Times labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse:


Legal experts also predicted that Tuesday’s ruling would lay the foundation for an expansive decision by the labor board that would apply this broad “joint employer” standard to other industries and companies besides McDonald’s and fast-food chains. They anticipated that perhaps manufacturers, real estate management firms or cleaning companies that use temp agencies or subcontractors would also be declared joint employers. “It’s one of the most significant board actions in quite some time,” said Peter Kirsanow, who served on the N.L.R.B. under President George W. Bush. “If this approach is adopted and upheld, it’s going to be fairly significant. There will be a fairly serious domino effect on various industries. We’re going to look at the effect on contingent workers, temporary employees, those that are sent out by staffing agencies.”


If any of this hold true, even temporarily, during this period of glasnost while everything shakes out, informal and precarious workers at the bottom of the employment chain to the big boys could find less wage theft, slightly higher wages, and some minimal benefits often ignored. Just having them all run scared from top to bottom, creates opportunity. Furthermore, as the concept and protection of “bargaining unit” work has either eroded or been eviscerated in collective bargaining agreements by subcontracting outside of the protected workforce, the Browning-Ferris case brought by the Teamsters as they try to include subcontracted workers under the direction of the employer in the election and bargaining unit could be a huge protection for existing union workers and those under agreements.

Will any of this make union organizing easier? I’m still not so sure that’s the case. Even including subcontracted workers in an election is tricky, since most subcontractors are on 30-day cancellation contracts keeping them on tender hooks and therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to pressure by contract supervisors still outside the reach of unfair labor practices. Franchisees with more authority or franchisees with tighter links to the brand or corporation are still a thousand flowers blooming out there that are exceedingly difficult to pluck for organizers. Brother Craig Becker, former NLRB member and now general counsel for the AFL-CIO most optimistically says, “McDonald’s has a working-class clientele and it has to be concerned of how it’s perceived on how it treats its workers.” Boy, I wish that were true, but Walmart continues to serve as the most outstanding case in point, and workers with small paychecks are core customers for Walmart, McDonalds, and hundreds of other companies, because they have been forced to look the other way to stay within their pay.

So call this a potential win for workers and keep your fingers crossed that this is the way it breaks, rather than separating them even farther from a lifeline to the larger company, and keep on your knees praying that we get an actual break in making it easier to organize such workers sometime in our lives.


Environmental Racism, Yes, Environmental Diversity, Still No, 25 Years Later

Montgomery       Almost 25 years ago in 1990 in an effort led by Richard Moore, co-director of the Southwest Organizing Project based in Albuquerque, a letter on their stationery signed by a number of community leaders was addressed to the head of the National Wildlife Federation and the big ten environmental organizations and demanded that they diversify not simply to reflect the population, but to understand the ravages of environmental racism that weighed most heavily on communities of color and lesser income. There were a lot of articles about the problem. There were a lot of committees organized and a huge number of promises to do better.

Moving forward now that there is even a greater awareness of the life-or-death importance of environmental issues, and a much deeper understanding of environmental racism, what’s the story now? Well, it’s not pretty, and it seems not to have changed much in 25 years according to a just released report covered by the Los Angeles Times:


The report found that while people of color make up about 38% of the U.S. population, they represent 12% to 15.5% of the staffs of environmentally focused foundations, nonprofits and government agencies. None of the largest environmental organizations have a person of color as president, vice president or assistant/associate director, according to the study, which was conducted by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor and commissioned by Green 2.0, a working group focused on addressing diversity challenges in the environmental movement. “The numbers don’t lie,” Taylor said. “Even more troubling, although most of the survey respondents expressed an interest in bridging this diversity gap, they admit their organizations are unlikely to take the necessary steps to do so.” Environmental organizations surveyed attributed the lack of staff diversity to a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants.


Geez, “a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants” sounds a lot like the responses we have heard now since the 1950’s every time there is a demand for diversity and change in representational hiring practices. Sadly, I don’t want to even think about how much of the 12 to 15% diversity reflects the fact that so many of these outfits are DC-based in a city more than 75% African-American able to fill the office staffs and lower positions easily.

And, is environmental racism still a huge issue? Damn straight! A story lays it out well:


It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress: When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles. Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities: [T]hat’s still a subject for further investigation; [U-Minnesota Professor Julian] Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways.


Looking for more proof? Then check out a devastating analysis of “the disproportionate effects of pollution on minorities living in Los Angeles” by Professor Edward Martin and Serena Do in the current issue of Social Policy.  The evidence is everywhere!

Big environmental organizations may be having trouble finding open slots or people that can fill them, but the facts are ubiquitous in our cities. Maybe they are finding it harder to talk to black and brown people compared to dolphins, polar bears, and trees, but they need to do so, and do it yesterday, because time has run out.