Fast food restaurants across the country will face serious service disruptions today as employees are expected to walk off the job to protest for higher wages.  The protesting workers are involved in what has become known as the Fight for Fifteen movement, which is primarily seeking a $15 per hour minimum wage for employees working at low-skill jobs.

The Fight for Fifteen began a little over two  years ago in New York City when several hundred fast food employees took to the streets to raise awareness of what they believed to be substandard wages.  And now the movement is spreading.  Convenience store workers, airport employees, and gas station attendants have signed on to the cause as well.

The Service Employees International Union is backing the movement financially and has been for some time.  In fact, the SEIU has established a “strike fund” from which they can pay workers who otherwise could not afford to take a day off to protest.

But the SEIU is certainly not operating on its own.  Other groups, such as Strike Fast Food, are also working for higher wages for low-skill positions.  And their efforts to secure higher wages for low-skill workers have not been entirely in vain, as the Strike Fast Food website trumpets:

“[W]e ARE winning. Seattle and San Francisco passed laws raising wages to $15 over the next couple years – and cities from New York to Los Angeles are pushing for higher wages too.”

Minimum wages have also recently risen in several other cities as well, with Chicago’s going up to $13 per hour and Oakland’s increasing to $12.25 per hour.

In total, today’s strike actions are set to take plan in almost 160 cities around the U.S.  The strike date was approved during a conference call on November 29, which not coincidentally was the two-year anniversary of the initial Fight for Fifteen protests.

McDonalds, a major employer of low-wage workers, issued a short statement regarding today’s planned work stoppages:

“These are not ‘strikes,’ but are organized rallies for which demonstrators are transported to various locations, and are often paid for their participation,” a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement last week. “At McDonald’s we respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest.”

The National Restaurant Association also weighed in, accusing the SEIU of using the Fight for Fifteen as a subterfuge in order to “boost their dwindling membership.”   And the International Franchise Association blasted the strike actions “as politically motivated . . . under the guise of trying to help the poor.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce echoed the International Franchise Association’s thoughts on the SEIU’s motives:

“Small-business franchise owners and their employees shouldn’t be subjected to the intimidation tactics of the SEIU and its squads of paid protestors,” said Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce’s workforce freedom initiative. “While dressed up as worker rights protests, these PR stunts are really about securing new dues payers for the SEIU.”

As we noted here on the blog back in September, the Fight for Fifteen’s recent escalation in tactics followed from the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to issue a complaint against McDonalds USA, LLC as a joint-employer back in July.  The Board’s decision to rope McDonalds USA into a complaint against a franchisee seemingly flew in the face of decades of legal precedent.  Nonetheless, labor watchers were not surprised.  The General Counsel is currently seeking to overturn the Board’s long-standing “joint-employer test,” which asks whether two or more employers must “share or co-determine matters governing essential terms and conditions of employment.”

If the General Counsel gets his way and the Board decides to kick the existing joint-employer standard to the curb, the entire franchise model could be thrown into chaos.  At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions on June 24, 2014, Andrew Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants expressed his concerns about the Board’s shift in approach thus:

“If franchisors are considered joint-employers with their franchisees, the cost of increased staff and increased risk will most likely translate into franchisors charging higher royalty rates and fees, perhaps significantly higher. Franchisor control over a franchisee’s labor force, and the risk and higher royalty rates and fees associated with it, have the potential to chill the desire of franchisors to franchise and of franchisees to acquire a franchise or to develop new units, at a time when the country desperately needs economic growth.”

At bottom, the Fight for Fifteen and the Board GC could be cutting off their nose to spite their face.  A ruling that franchisors are joint-employers would likely not only increase costs to the consumer, but could also result in workers losing their jobs.  And higher employer costs likely will not translate into better wages for employees. 

We here at @LRToday have been following the Fight for Fifteen and the GC’s efforts to overturn the joint-employer standard for some time.  (McKenna Long & Aldridge filed an amicus brief in the Browning-Ferris case on behalf of the Retail Litigation Center).  Keep watching the blog for any updates.