Right now, the National Labor Relations Board is weighing the very question of what it means to be an “employer,” and therefore who has to come to the bargaining table when workers organize for better treatment.
The problem: Over the past few decades, the labor market has undergone a profound “fissuring,” with workers being insulated from the people who effectively dictate the terms of their employment. Vertical integration is so 1950s; outsourcing is the new hotness. Some big companies barely “employ” anybody at all, hiding behind the franchises, temp staffing agencies and contractors that actually do the hiring and firing (or work for themselves). That makes it nearly impossible for unions to gain any leverage in their fights for better wages and working conditions: If a hospital or a property manager or an automaker can just swap out one contractor for another that charges less, what’s the point?