In March, Sean Caldwell, a Mount Airy restaurant worker, told a newspaper reporter about struggling to support his children on the $8 an hour he earned as a part-time maintenance worker at the McDonald's restaurant at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia.

The story appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on a Monday. By that Friday, Caldwell was out of a job.

Whether Caldwell was fired for cause or in retaliation for speaking out will be decided by an administrative law judge. His case is one of 78 unfair labor practice civil cases from around the country consolidated Friday by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB charged that many fast-food workers were illegally threatened, fired, or retaliated against while participating in a nationwide union-backed campaign to raise workers' wages and to unionize.

Significantly, the 78 consolidated cases, including several from Philadelphia, name McDonald's Corp. as a joint employer with local franchise owners.

That means that if administrative law judges find that the law was violated, the Illinois-based global company would be liable along with local restaurant owners.

"McDonald's exerts such pressure over its franchisees that, for all intents and purposes, McDonald's is the boss," Mary Joyce Carlson, attorney for the national Fast-Food Fight for $15 organizing campaign, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

McDonald's disagreed.

The NLRB's actions "improperly and dramatically strike at the heart of the franchise system," McDonald's said in a statement Friday.

McDonald's said it provides franchise owners with guidance on management, food quality, and customer service.

"This relationship does not establish a joint employer relationship under the law - and decades of case law support that principle," McDonald's said, adding that it would appeal the NLRB's joint-employer decision.

It's not unusual for leaders of worker campaigns for better wages and working conditions to file charges alleging employer retaliation in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

For example, on Tuesday, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ filed an unfair labor practice charge against Prospect Airport Services Inc. on behalf of four fired airplane cleaners, all active in a union drive.

Suzanne Mucklow, counsel for Prospect, said she had no comment except that their union participation "is not an accurate reason" for their firing.

But the McDonald's case is different because it ties the national corporation to its franchisees.

The Philadelphia cases name franchise owners Jo-Dan Enterprises and Jo-Dan Madalisse Ltd., in Bala Cynwyd, led by John Dawkins 3d.

Dawkins, a past president of the local chapter of the Black McDonald's Operators Association, has owned, with family members, as many as nine McDonald's restaurants in the area.

The unfair labor practice case involving Caldwell was filed May 30. Other charges in the complaint include allegations that Dawkins interrogated workers about union activities and promised a promotion to an employee in return for dropping union support.

Phone calls and an e-mail to Dawkins' office went unanswered Friday.

Of the 291 cases filed nationally since the fast-food campaign began in 2012, 134 have been dismissed or resolved, 71 are under investigation, and eight are nearly resolved.

The remaining 78 cases have been consolidated by region into 13 complaints. Philadelphia's complaints, with New York's, will be heard starting in March by administrative law judge in New York.

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen