by Wade Rathke
December 18, 2020
Atlanta The New York City Council passed two ordinances that could open the door to a new era of job protection for some of the most precarious workers in the service industry: fast food workers. It goes without saying that New York City is sui generis – one of a kind – but change has to start somewhere, and if we can’t do it through unionization and collective bargaining, winning politically still protects workers and, if it delivers job security, workers will build power.
The council passed two ordinances which will come into full force in six months for largely national companies, think McDonalds, Popeyes, Chipotle, Dunkin Donuts, and the like, that have thirty or more locations in the city. One ordinance mandates that workers can only be fired for “just cause,” and can access arbitration to resolve disagreements in that area. The other requires layoffs to be by seniority. Both of these new ordinances would be standard objectives in a collective bargaining agreement. New York City has been the scene of some of the most active organizing of fast food workers in recent years through the Fight for $15 and other initiatives by community and worker alliances. Setbacks under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board during the Trump administration cutoff efforts to tie companies and their franchisees more closely together as equally responsible co-employers, making organization ever more difficult. With boulders in the road on one path, another road is showing progress.
These are important steps forward, but hardly fast tracks. Unions are constantly fighting employers over the definition of “just cause,” and resolution via arbitration is expensive and slow going. The key value will be intimidating employers with the prospects of the hassle and slowing their hand on terminations. Without unions and real representation along with the ability to mount collective and public actions, workers will still be expendable to many companies qualified under the ordinance. National companies trying to protect their brands may help shield workers from some of the more arbitrary and capricious firings. Layoff protections for senior workers will be easier to enforce, where there is transparency, and will protect workers from being laid off, simply because they are no longer making minimum wage.
Will this move other cities? We should hope so, especially in the tier of cities that have also made progress on wages like Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston and the like.
Will it set a precedent? That’s harder to say. New York City had earlier enacted a Fair Work Week in 2017 to regulate shift work and direct penalties for changes, clo-penings, and other worker abuses. Some companies, Starbucks in particular, responded nationally, but this has hardly become the cookie cutter piece of local legislation that might have benefited workers elsewhere.
Winning in New York came because of worker pressure and organization. Where that can be duplicated, there’s a real shot that this could move worker protection and standards forward, but without organization, it won’t happen.