If you’re a temp worker, you likely live day by day, without a steady income, regular work schedule, and virtually no job security—never knowing when or where your next job begins or ends. But thanks to a new ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the world of temp labor may soon provide one benefit that could transform a paycheck-to-paycheck gig into a job worth holding on to: a union card.
In Miller & Anderson, the NLRB overturned a Bush-era precedent by ruling that temporary workers, hired through a subcontracted staffing agency, may seek to unionize under the parent company that the subcontractor serves, as long as the workplace and working conditions are shown to be controlled under a “joint employer” arrangement, with multiple firms operating in tandem. So although temps are technically employees of their staffing agency, in many cases they could still unionize with workers hired under other firms, in the workplace where they’re assigned. This significantly strengthens efforts by temps to seek union representation at their assigned sites, even workers who were technically hired by other companies but work alongside the regular staffers, doing comparable work, under one roof.
Under this framework, the NLRB ruled, “Employer consent is not necessary for units that combine jointly employed and solely employed employees of a single employer.” Rather than seek their bosses’ approval before unionizing, workers can initiate unionization efforts on their own terms, if they share a “community of interests,” which is based on workers’ common labor conditions and job roles, rather than legal ties to a specific company.
“Maybe you don’t have one employer that’s controlling everything, but you can say that we’re all working in the same place, we work under the same conditions,” explains Teamsters California Political Director Doug Bloch. “We might have different employers but we have a shared community of interest when it comes to collective bargaining or to organizing.”
This intuitively rational standard for determining the nature of an employment relationship helps address the “who’s the boss” issue in subcontracting, by simply letting workers answer that question: Workers doing the same job should have the same rights, even if their paychecks come from different companies.
The decision rounds out the legal framework established in last year’s landmark ruling in the Browning-Ferris case, involving a recycling plant that employed both permanent and subcontracted workers. The NLRB recognized the subcontracted employees’ rights to raise grievances against the parent firm over issues of unfair labor practices and collective bargaining rights. The Miller ruling solidifies subcontracted workers’ right to initiate and organize a collective bargaining unit in a way that reflects the power structures within their everyday work-lives. This could be a powerful check against the expansion of precarious, unstable, irregular jobs, which often disproportionally impacts women and people of color.