Labor Board Reverses Protections for Workers
On Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board, led by Trump appointee Philip A. Miscimarra, undid an Obama-era ruling that protected workers, including subcontractors, from labor law violations. In an unsurprising move, all three Republicans on the Board voted together to undo the rule, while the two Democrats opposed them.
“Frankly, it’s shocking,” Wilma B. Liebman, a former Democrat chairwoman of the Board, told The New York Times of the decision.
Back in 2015, the Board heard the case of an Iowa construction company, whose subcontractors went on strike to protest unsafe conditions and low wages and benefits. Those workers were fired in retaliation.
A local judge ruled the firings illegal, leading the National Labor Relations Board to declare in 2015 that the old joint-employer rule was “increasingly out of step with changing economic circumstances, particularly the recent dramatic growth in contingent employment relationships.” They then changed the law so that a company would be responsible for illegal practices at all levels, including those that affect sub-contractors and employees at franchises.
This week the Board reversed that earlier decision, and the consequences for the fast-food industry could prove dire. For example, the person who makes your sandwiches at your local Subway could now be considered the responsibility of their direct franchise owner— not the Subway Group corporation itself. Now, if that sandwich maker and their coworkers protested an unfair practice at their location, it would be that much easier for the store owner to fire them, without consequence from the corporate higher-ups. The rule effectively protects corporations against any kind of legal action from lower-level employees.
As the Times describes, the vote is politically motivated, as corporations have been lobbying Republicans to reverse the Obama-era worker protection since it was enacted.
At its most fundamental level, the ruling highlights deep differences in philosophy between most Democratic and Republican members of the labor board. During the Obama administration, the board majority believed that the changing structure of the economy — in which employers have steadily pushed workers outside their firms and into a throng of contractors, franchises and staffing agencies — required updating doctrine to stay true to the intent of labor law…
By contrast, the ruling Thursday from the Republican-led board argued that its predecessors had been guilty of “upending decades of labor law precedent and probably centuries of precedent in corporate law” with no mandate from Congress to do so.
It’s worth noting that the National Labor Relations Board was created in 1935 by President Roosevelt with the express intent of protecting American workers from being taken advantage of by their employers. But today’s Republican-dominated Board wants to slow the pace of progress, despite that fact that more corporations are increasingly trying to shirk responsibility for their workers by labelling them as contractors.
The Times also explains that the reversal endangers workers who want to join a union:
The reversal could also affect the ability to unionize in the first place. A company is free to fire a contractor or end a franchise arrangement if it suspects that workers are on the verge of unionizing. But there could be legal liability for doing so if the company is a joint employer of workers with the contractor or franchisee.
This isn’t the only Obama-era worker protection that could be reversed under this Republican-majority labor board. Also on the chopping block are “rulings that made it easier for smaller groups of workers within a company to unionize, that gave workers access to a company’s email network for organizing purposes, and that conferred a federally protected right to unionize on graduate students at private universities.”