Obama Administration Declares War on Franchisors and Subcontractors

In a series of unilateral moves, the Obama administration has been introducing an entirely new regime of labor law without benefit of legislation, upending decades’ worth of precedent so as to herd as many workers into unions as possible. The newest, yesterday, from the National Labor Relations Board, is also probably the most drastic yet: in a case against waste hauler Browning-Ferris Industries, the Board declared that from now on, franchisors and companies that employ subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies will often be treated as if they were really direct employers of those other firms’ workforces: they will be held liable for alleged labor law violations at the other workplaces, and will be under legal compulsion to bargain with unions deemed to represent their staff. The new test, one of “industrial realities,” will ask whether the remote company has the power, even the potential power, to significantly influence working conditions or wages at the subcontractor or franchisee; a previous test sought to determine whether the remote company exercised “ ‘direct and immediate impact’ on the worker’s terms and conditions — say, if that second company is involved in hiring and determining pay levels.”

This is a really big deal; as our friend Iain Murray puts it at CEI, it has the potential to “set back the clock 40 years, to an era of corporate giants when few people had the option of being their own bosses while pursuing innovative employment arrangements.”

  • A tech start-up currently contracts out for janitorial, cafeteria, and landscaping services. It will now be at legal risk should its hired contractors be later found to have violated labor law in some way, as by improperly resisting unionization. If it wants to avoid this danger of vicarious liability, it may have to fire the outside firms and directly hire workers of its own.
  • A national fast-food chain currently employs only headquarters staff, with franchisees employing all the staff at local restaurants. Union organizers can now insist that it bargain centrally with local organizers, at risk for alleged infractions by the franchisees. To escape, it can either try to replace its franchise model with company-owned outlets – so that it can directly control compliance – or at least try to exert more control over franchisees, twisting their arms to recognize unions or requiring that an agent of the franchiser be on site at all times to monitor labor law compliance.

Writes management-side labor lawyer Jon Hyman:

If staffing agencies and franchisors are now equal under the National Labor Relations Act with their customers and franchisees, then we will see the end of staffing agencies and franchises as viable business models. Moreover, do not think for a second that this expansion of joint-employer liability will stop at the NLRB. The Department of Labor recently announced that it is exploring a similar expansion of liability for OSHA violations. And the EEOC is similarly exploring the issue for discrimination liability.

And Beth Milito, senior legal counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business, quoted at The Hill: “It will make it much harder for self-employed subcontractors to get jobs.” What will happen to the thriving white-van culture of small skilled contractors that now provides upward mobility to so many tradespeople? Trade it in for a company van, start punching someone’s clock, and just forget about building a business of your own.

What do advocates of these changes intend to accomplish by destroying the economics of business relationships under which millions of Americans are presently employed? For many, the aim is to force much more of the economy into the mold of large-payroll, unionized employers, a system for which the 1950s are often (wrongly) idealized.

One wonders whether many of the smart New Economy people who bought into the Obama administration’s promises really knew what they were buying.