MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 10: Cecelia O'Brien (R) joins other workers to protest last November outside a McDonald's restaurant in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Today, March 10, in a courtroom in New York City, McDonald's representatives are scheduled to take the stand in a hearing that could have deep implications for worker power in one of America's largest low-wage industries.

To be clear, it really began in the late fall of 2012, when labor activists and fast food workers mounted a spate of protests over low pay at McDonald's locations in New York City. After many of those strikes, workers charge, their bosses retaliated — warning them not to talk to organizers, promising better treatment if they stopped protesting, threatening that they'd be fired if they didn't. Every time that happened, groups supported by the Service Employees International Union would help them file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, naming McDonald's headquarters as a "joint employer," equally responsible for the intimidation as the franchisees.

That process repeated itself — picketing, punishment, complaint — through 2013 and 2014, in cities all over the country, becoming what's now called the "Fight for $15," as in a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Then, one day in late July of 2014, the board's general counsel announced that he agreed, alleging: McDonald's does exert enough control over the day-to-day operations of its franchisees, which account for 90 percent of its stores, that it should share the consequences for their legal missteps.

If the legal system upholds that determination, it could not only expose McDonald's to massive liability, but also open the door for workers at McDonald's franchises across the country to form a union that would negotiate directly with corporate headquarters, rather than each individual franchisee. And although the verdict will be specific to the golden arches, it likely will have a bearing on the rights of workers at thousands of other franchises as well.

It was a victory for the cashiers and fry cooks, but only the beginning of a long battle. General Counsel Richard Griffin issued consolidated complaints for 78 charges in December of 2014, and hearings were supposed to begin the following spring. Instead, a voluminous court record shows that McDonald's filed motion after motion in efforts to derail the process, or to at least avoid producing the material the general counsel's office demanded as evidence, which the company maintains is confidential. A few documents have been made public, including a shift management manual and an "index of resources" available to franchisees, but most are still under wraps.

Nevertheless, the case is scheduled to begin today, with opening statements before an administrative law judge in Manhattan. Arguments, including depositions of witnesses, could go on for weeks. Separate hearings will then begin in two other regions where complaints have been issued. If either the groups representing workers or McDonald's and its franchisees wish to appeal the administrative judge's decision, the case would to to the full board, and then potentially up to a federal court.

So the process is long from over. In the meantime, complaints about alleged retaliation following strikes at fast food restaurants have continued to pour in.

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