Labor board readies flurry of decisions

The National Labor Relations Board is expected in the coming weeks to weigh in on several high-profile labor cases with major implications on workforce and union issues, ranging from college football players to fast food restaurants.

Business are bracing for a flurry of action from a labor board they’ve accused of taking on an activist, pro-union agenda.

"We’ve seen the board become very active and aggressive under the Obama administration,” said Beth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

One of the most closely watched cases on the labor board’s agenda involves a bid by Northwestern University’s football team to form the first union for college athletes.

At issue is whether Northwestern football players are "students first, athletes second,” as the NCAA argues, or if they should be considered employees of the school.

Many observers expect the NLRB to side with the players over the school, which could have broader implications for college sports, as it would set a precedent for players from other teams to unionize.

Business groups say unions would destroy college athletics, and force some smaller schools to shut down their sports programs.

"It will be fine for the likes of Alabama, but a lot of small schools won’t be able to have teams because they can’t afford it,” said NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom.

But labor advocates say colleges make so much money from their football programs that they should share a portion with the players.

Northwestern’s football team generated more than $8 million in profits for the school during the 2012-2013 season.

“Colleges make so much money off the players,” said Jane Lauer Barker, a partner at the New York law firm Pitta & Giblin, which represents employees in labor cases.

The players, who held a formal unionization vote in April, are calling for their scholarships to be guaranteed and for better working conditions, though they are not asking to be paid salaries.

But the NLRB has sealed the team’s vote until after it decides whether they should be allowed to unionize.

"For all we know, the players voted against forming a union, which would be pretty embarrassing for the NLRB,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the conservative Workforce Fairness Institute.

On another front, the labor board is also looking at whether dozens of McDonald’s franchisees violated the labor rights of their employees.

The NLRB’s top lawyer determined in July that McDonald’s could be held liable as a so-called "joint employer" for labor violations committed by its franchisees and filed complaints against the fast food chain in December.

Those complaints will go before an administrative law judge in March, and could eventually make their way up to the board.

While the McDonald’s case has sweeping ramifications for the franchise business model, an even bigger case known as Browning-Ferris could set a new joint employer standard for employers everywhere.

Browning-Ferris Industries is a waste disposal company that contracts with a staffing agency to hire temporary workers at a plant in California.

The employees of the staffing agency argue that Browning-Ferris should be considered a joint employer, so they can collectively bargain with the company.

This case deals with the same issue as McDonald’s, but would set a broader precedent for all companies that hire staffing agencies or work with contractors, as it marks the first time the board is weighing in on the issue.

"It could really touch any employer,” said Amanda Wood, director of employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

But labor advocates say a ruling in favor of the employees would give them more job security.

"It’s very difficult to organize those employees successfully, because the minute they're organized the company can terminate their contract and find another staffing agency,” Barker said.