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Making Union Organizing Easy and Managing a Business Almost Impossible


In the waning days of Wilma Liebman's tenure as Chairperson of the National Labor Relations Board, the Board overturned twenty years of labor law history and held in Specialty Healthcare that a group of employees as small as a single classification can be separately unionized (See Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB No. 83 (2011)).  In August of this year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Board decision, deferring to the Board's "expertise" in such matters.

We have a perfect storm brewing.  

Micro-units are vastly more easily organized than plant-wide or store-wide units.  It's just arithmetic.  Two of five dock workers (shipping and receiving employees) in a bar drinking after work can sign cards on which a valid petition for an election can be based and all they need is one more to vote for the union and it's done.  If the appropriate unit consists of 100 employees, the union's task is much more difficult. 

Micro-units may sound too fantastic to be true.  It's not.  The Board is turning its back on well-established rules, such as single plant and single store presumptions, and subjecting employers to the real risk of dealth by a thousand cuts.  

Regional Directors of the Board have been applying the new rules for the last two years.  Among their decisions has been to certify the employees in the women's shoe department at a Bergdorf Goodman in New York and the cosmetics and fragrance department employees at a Macy's in Massachusetts as appropriate units for bargaining.  How many departments in a department store?  How many classifications in workplace?  How many groupings of similar skill-sets are there?  The application of the new rule may result in union representation and union contract for each of those departments, classifications and groupings.  The result is chaos.  When last I looked, chaos does not produce productive workers.

The storm fronts also converging are the likelihood of quickie elections reducing the time to election from petition date to two weeks or less and the Department of Labor's revision of persuader rules so that obtaining confidential legal advice concerning the application of Labor Board rules much more complicated and difficult.

There are things that an employer can do to meet its new burden of showing that the employees in other classifications or departments have an "overwhelming community of interest" with the employees subject to the petition so that a unit of just those employees would be inappropriate. A short list that will be expanded to meet an individual employer's situation and methods of operation are  

  • examine your organization to determine which job classifications or departments share skill levels so that they can be combined to make broad identifiable groupings;
  • flatten your management organizing so that more employees report to the same managers;
  • develop incentive plans or productivity measurements that cover the larger groupings;
  • cross train employees in the putative larger unit so that they can move easily across traditional job classifications/departments; and
  •  establish compensation grids and promotional opportunities that are common for all employees in the larger unit.
Clearly, things are going to become more difficult as time goes by as more and more Regional Directors are asked to apply the Board's new rules.  What an employer that wishes to remain union free or, at least, does not want to be paralyzed by the balkanization of its workforce cannot do is ignore the signs of the perfect storm and take action to protect against them.

 
 
 
 

Labor Board Launches Website Aimed at Non-Union Employees


LABOR BOARD LAUNCHES WEBSITE DIRECTED AT NON-UNION EMPLOYEES

 

On June 18, the National Labor Relations Board launched its new website directed at non-union employees.  The website, www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity, is attached and directs readers to the Board’s agency website.  The agency website, www.nlrb.gov, details the employee rights that are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (e.g., the right to belong to and promote union representation) and provides instructions about how to access the Board to obtain redress for employer violations of the law.

 

The website was originally intended to accompany the Employee Rights poster that the NLRB was set to require employers to post on April 30.  The Employee Rights poster is hung-up in litigation.

 

Visitors to the website are given eleven examples of instances where non-union employees sought assistance from the Labor Board and achieved reinstatement to employment and damage awards.  The examples all involve instances when the Labor Board was successful in getting discharged employees reinstated to their employment with full back pay or obtained significant settlements (in one case, $900,000) in return for refusing reinstatement.  These examples were as follow:

 

·                     An employee was discharged for posting on her Facebook page criticisms of her supervisor.

 

·                     An employee was discharged to keep her from talking to other employees about perceived wage rate unfairness.

 

·                     Employees were discharged for walking off the job in protest of a change in work rules.

 

·                     Employees who signed a petition protesting working and living conditions were threatened with deportation and then discharged.

 

·                     Employees were disciplined for asking to meet with a human resource representative to complain about a supervisor who they had discovered was a registered sex offender.

 

·                     Employees were discharged for sending a protest letter about a wage cut.

 

·                     Employee who discussed her wages with another employee was discharged

 

·                     An employee was discharged for refusing to divulge the names of the authors of an anonymous petition critical of senior management.

 

·                     Employees who signed a protest letter complaining about a wage cut were fired.

 

·                     Employees who raised safety concerns were fired.

 

·                     Employees were discharged for complaining on You Tube about unsafe working conditions.

 

Presumably, the Labor Board will add new examples with even more captivating fact patterns as they occur.  

 

Employers have been conditioned to examining each instance of discipline or discharge to ensure that the decision has not been tainted by illegal bias against a member of a protected class.  Employers must now include in that examination whether the decision implicates rights protected by the National Labor Relations Act.  The Labor Board is anxious to find as many examples as possible. 

 

Untrained managers and supervisors and rules of conduct that, for example, prohibit the disparagement the employer, use of the company logo, or inappropriate conduct risk place their employers at risk of another pin in the Labor Board’s map of malefactors.

Read my new article on the Labor Board's current campaign -- and how far it will go -- to educate non-union employees on their rights under the National Labor Relations Act in the June 15 issue of HREonline. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

OBAMA WAGES WAR ON BEHALF OF LABOR UNIONS


OBAMA WAGES WAR ON BEHALF OF LABOR UNIONS

 

The good news is that the National Labor Relations Board has postponed the date by which employers must post an Employee Rights Under the NLRA poster from January 15 to April 30.  Of course, the postponement was at the request of the federal judge hearing the complaint brought by various employer groups to have the posting enjoined completely.

 

The bad news is that Obama continues to take an extreme pro-labor position when it comes to the membership of the NLRB.  The Constitution requires that presidential appointments to the NLRB must be confirmed by the Senate.  A president may by-pass the process by appointing the nominee to the position for a term that must expire at the end of the next Senate session.  A president usually does this when he believes that his nominee will not be able to garner the approval of the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster.

 

Last Spring, Obama, unable to get his appointment of Craig Becker through the Senate, used the recess-appointment process made him a Board member which would have an expiration date of the adjournment of the Senate at the end of the calendar year.  Becker was the first appointee to the NLRB in history who came directly from an in-house position with a labor union, in this case the Service Employees International Union.  At about that time, the President’s nomination of Mark Pearce (D) and Brian Hayes (R) were confirmed.

 

With a three to one majority of pro-labor members on the Board, the NLRB has issued rules, proposed rules and made decisions that have helped union organizing and increased the power of labor unions.  With the expiration of Chairman Liebman’s (D) term in August and the expiration of Becker’s recess appointment at the end of the calendar year, the Board was left with only two members and, due to a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Board became unable to decide cases or issue new rules.

 

On December 14, 2011, Obama announced his intent to nominate Sharon Block and Richard Griffin to the Board.  On December 19, 2011, all 47 Senate Republicans sent a letter to the President asking him not to make Block and Griffin recess appointments because to do so would violate the long history of appointments being negotiated between the Administration and the Senate to come up with individuals at least palatable to both parties.  On December 19, 2011, 11 Republican Senators also wrote Obama asking that he withdraw the nomination of acting General Counsel of the NLRB,Lafe Soloman, to the full position of General Counsel. 

 

On January 4, 2012, Obama officially ignored the Senate Republicans and made recess appointments of both Block and Griffin (along with Terence Flynn (R)).  If the appointments hold, the Board will be at full strength with two Republican (presumably pro-business) and three Democratic (presumably pro-labor) members.

 

Both Block and Griffin can be expected to pick up right where Leibman and Becker left off since they are of the same philosophical cloth.  Block came from the Department of Labor where she had been the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs.  Prior to that, Block had been the Senior Labor and Employment Counsel for the Senate HELP Committee where she worked for the late Senator Edward Kennedy.  Reports have been circulating  that Block was the center of the current proposal by the DOL to severely restrict the definition of “advice” for the purposes of required reporting to the DOL of union prevention activities.  Under the proposed rule change, virtually every non-employee, including attorneys, who provides assistance to a company to preserve its union-free workforce would have to report all financial payments and arrangements for those activities to the DOL for publication on the DOL website.  In the words of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, “she will be sorely missed” by the Department of Labor.  Solis supported the Employee Free Choice Act and is one of the most vocal advocates in government for organized labor.

 

Griffin is the second person to be placed on the NLRB directly from a labor union (Becker being the first).  Griffin was the General Counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE).  Since 1994, he also has been on the board of directors for the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee. 

 

Actions have already been filed to block these recess appointments, as well as that for the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The challenges have been on the basis that the Senate technically has not gone into recess, because every three days since Christmas a senator has appeared in the chamber to gavel a session into order and, with no business to conduct, within a minute, gavels the session closed.  Technically, the filings assert, because the Senate is not in recess, no recess appointments can be made. 

 

Of course, if the suits are successful and the appointments are held to be invalid because the Senate is not in recess, will Craig Becker still be a member?

 

Stay tuned.

 

At a minimum, businesses cannot expect any relief from the barrage of pro-union actions and decisions by the NLRB, particularly those that assist unions in their organizing efforts.  Since one of the changes that has already occurred may cut the time between a petition and election by as much as half, employers who wish to remain union-free must continue to hone and implement their Rapid Response Plans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

DID THE BOARD BLINK?


DID THE BOARD BLINK?

 

On June 22, the National Labor Relations Board published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking as the first step in its massive overhaul of election procedures.  This overhaul was obviously calculated to advantage organized labor’s organizing and disadvantage employers who wish to remain union free.

 

Between June 22 and August 22, the Board received over 65,000 comments and heard testimony from 65 witnesses, many, if not most, objecting to the proposed rule changes.

 

On August 23, then Chairman of the Board, Wilma Liebman’s term expired, leaving the Board with only three members, Democrats Becker and Pearce and Republican Hayes.  At the end of the current legislative session, Becker, a recess appointment, will have his term expire.  Upon the expiration of Becker’s term, the Board will lose the quorum (three) required for decisions and other official actions.  In short, the Board will be out of business.

 

Two weeks ago, the Board gave notice that it would issue a modified set of new rules governing election procedures on November 30, to beat the deadline before it loses its ability to act due to a loss of quorum. 

 

Hayes threatened to resign before November 30, claiming that the contemplated action was without his knowledge or participation in the process of determining what the new rules would be.  His resignation would deny the Board the legal ability to adopt the new rules because it would cease to have the necessary quorum.

 

Today the Chairman of the Board, Pearce, released the details of the rule changes that will be presented for final adoption tomorrow.  Hayes has not resigned and, in light of the lateness of the hour, it is unlikely that he will resign.  Consequently, the Board will have a quorum and the proposed rule changes in the Chairman’s Resolution will become final with Pearce and Becker passing them over the expected dissent by Hayes. 

 

In short, they rule changes that will be made final tomorrow are of only minor moment, especially when compared to what Becker, Pearce (and previously Liebman) and organized labor really wanted.  It appears that Becker and Pearce blinked in the face of Hayes’s threatened resignation and have deleted almost all of the most controversial changes that were proposed in June. 

 

The new rules will:

 

1.   Give the Board’s hearing officer the authority to limit evidence introduced at a representation hearing only to what the officer believes is material to whether a question of representation exists.  Issues ancillary to that question, such as those having to do with supervisory status or other questions challenging the eligibility of some employees to vote may not be permitted and certainly will not be allowed to delay the process.

 

2.   Give the hearing officer the authority to deny requests to file a brief on an issue raised at a representation hearing where the officer believes that a brief is not necessary to assist in making a decision on whether a question of representation exists.

 

3.   Delay the review of issues that are excluded by the hearing officer at a representation hearing until the post-election hearing, when, presumably, most would have been rendered moot by the election.

 

4.   Delete from the existing Rules the provision that provides for additional time between a representation hearing and an election to permit petitions to the Board to review decisions by the hearing officer.

 

5.   Permit appeals to the Board from decisions made at a representation hearing only in extraordinary situations where the appeal would otherwise evade review.

 

6.   Give the Board discretion to hear appeals in representation cases, regardless of whether the decision from which the appeal is taken is pre or post-election.

 

Not included in the rule changes to be finalized tomorrow (November 30) are the most controversial changes proposed on June 22:

 

·                     Electronic filing of petitions

 

·                     Requirement that representation hearings must be held within 7 days from the date of the notice of the hearing

 

·                     Requirement of a position statement at the outset of a hearing

 

·                     Preclusion of issues for trial post-election that were not included in the position statement filed at the representation hearing

 

·                     Inclusion of email addresses and phone numbers on voter lists

 

·                     Reduction in time for providing the voter list to the union from the current 7 work days to 2 work days

 

 

Chairman Pearce emphasized in his press release today, however, that the additional changes are still on the table and “remain under consideration by the Board for possible future action.”  Stay tuned. 

 

While the Board can be criticized for making decisions that do not reflect the real world, this much we now know – they have learned the definition of “hard bargaining,” thanks to Brian Hayes.

 

Even though the threat of the Board using its rule-making authority to tilt the field favorably in the direction of organized labor apparently has subsided for the time-being, we should be keeping a wary eye on Lafe Solomon, the General Counsel, and other actions the Board may take that do not rise to the level of formal rulemaking.  For example, the current guideline for Regional directors that elections must be held within 42 days from the date of a petition, absence extraordinary circumstances, is not part of any formal rule.  It is a guideline that can be changed without a lengthy hearing or comment process. 

 

Because of the continuing threat that the Board, either through its members or General Counsel, will take some action that will prejudice the ability of employers to combat union organizing, employers who wish to remain union-free should be doing those things now that are designed to neutralize and combat any appeal that a union may have to its employees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

Labor Board Blurs Line Between Management Rights and Protected Activity and Then Orders a "Perp" Walk


Labor Board Stretches to Blur Line Between Management Rights and Protected Activity and Then Orders a “Perp Walk”

 

In a case decided on August 11, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed an Administrative Law Judge’s determination that an employer, the publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press, committed numerous violations of the National Labor Relations Act.  That was not remarkable.  Coercive interrogations about union activity, surveillance of union activities, requiring the removal of union buttons and signs and terminating a supervisor for refusing to commit unfair labor practices clearly violate the Act and have done so for over half a century. 

 

What was remarkable is that the Board decided an issue that was not required for the holding and, instead, appears to have gone out of its way unnecessarily to broadly define activity protected by the Act.

 

The case involved news reporters.  The publisher of the newspaper issued several directives.  The first limited the coverage of the arrest and sentencing of the paper’s editorial page editor.  The second prohibited reporters from including the home addresses of public figures (in this case, Rob Lowe) in news stories.  Finally, the publisher limited what information about the paper could be disseminated by its reporters to other news media.  The edicts resulted in a discharge, numerous resignations, a campaign to cause the cancellation of subscriptions, union organizing and, ultimately, an election which was won by the union.

 

The Board, in affirming the ALJ, held that the publisher’s editorial controls and edicts impacted the journalistic integrity of the reporters.  As a consequence, the Board said, the publisher’s conduct interfered with the protected rights of the reporters.  What moves the decision out of the outrageous category is that the actions taken by the publisher were so mixed with other unfair labor practices that it is hard to isolate what could otherwise have been a clear encroachment by the Board on management prerogatives.  Despite the Board’s protestations to the contrary, the fact remains that on some level it blurred the line between management’s rights to run its business and employee protected activity.  Whether the Board will use this case as support in the future for further limiting management authority is for another day. 

 

A couple of other things make this case worthy of comment.  First, the publisher’s stated reasons for the actions against the employees were numerous and, to the ALJ, that multiplicity smacked of pretext.  Had the publisher limited its reason for action to the management prerogative argument, the case would not have been so easy for the Board.  As in civil rights litigation, cases can be lost because an early statement about why a certain action was taken turns out to be incorrect and pretextual.  The lesson is that employers must be smart from the beginning and not rely on after-the-fact-lawyer-spin to win cases.  The reason for the action must be formulated with the law and available proofs considered before the action is taken. 

 

The second reason for reporting on this case is the Board’s amendment to the remedy ordered by the ALJ.  The amendment says a lot about the current Board’s bias against employers. 

 

In addition to the expected cease and desist, reinstatement, rescission of negative performance evaluations and make whole remedies, the ALJ ordered, again expectedly, that the employer must post a notice stating the rights of employees to engage in union activity, pledging no further violations of the Act and listing the actions it will take to remedy the prior unlawful conduct.  The actions the ALJ required from the employer were severe and extensive, directly touching virtually every employee.  There is no question that the entire workforce would know what and how the NLRB had concluded their employer violated their rights.  No one working for the employer would have any question.  No one working for the employer would be left in the dark.  Nothing more was required.  Nothing more was needed.

 

The Board, however, apparently thought there was something more that was needed – groveling.

 

The Board ordered that the remedy be amended to require a senior member of management to read the Board’s complete Order to the assembled employees or to stand next to a Board agent as the Order is read.  It is the Board’s version of a “perp walk.” 

 

Since this kind of communication was not necessary in this case to communicate with few employees of a small employer, the only motive for the Board’s action could be the demeaning of the employer. 

 

Unfortunately, I suspect there will be more of this kind of anti-management retaliatory conduct by the Board in the future, as it continues to increase the ante for employers who are charged with violations of the Act.  By raising the remedial stakes to an unconscionable level, does the Board feel that it will be able to coerce employers into settling cases of questionable merit or inconsequence, thereby aiding unions in their organizing efforts?  If this is the motive, the Board is actively trying to subvert the law and process in favor of organized labor. 

 

 
 
 
 

IN THE WAKE OF THE DREAMLINER: THE LABOR BOARD PREPARES TO CHANGE THE RULES ON BARGAINING OVER DECISIONS TO RELOCATE WORK


IN THE WAKE OF THE DREAMLINER

 

THE LABOR BOARD PREPARES TO CHANGE THE RULES ON BARGAINING OVER DECISIONS TO RELOCATE WORK

 

On May 10, 2011, the Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board sent a memo to all of the Board’s Regional Offices telling them to submit all pending cases involving the issue of whether the employer had a duty to bargain with the union representing its employees about a decision to relocate work.  In a speech given by Solomon on June 9, he stated the reason for the Memo: he wants to find an appropriate vehicle for the Board to reconsider the Board’s long established rules governing bargaining over decisions about taking work out of unionized plants and moving it to more friendly environs.  Apparently, the fire-storm Mr. Solomon caused by the complaint against Boeing for its decision to place work in a new, non-union South Carolina plant rather than in a strike-plagued unionized plant in Washington was not enough for him. 

 

Mr. Solomon’s instruction follows Chairman Leibman’s musings in a case published on March 31, 2011, that she believes it may be time to require employers to provide information to its union detailing the reasons why it may decide to relocate work, even where the decision could not be affected by anything a union might do.  See Embarq Corporation and IBEW, 356 NLRB No. 125 at page 2.  A change in the rule as suggested by Leibman (and now contemplated by the Acting General Counsel) would be a sea-change in the way unionized employers will be required do business..

 

The current rule was developed through numerous cases and finally settled in 1991 in Dubuque Packing Company, 303 NLRB 386, 1991, enfd. in pertinent part 1 F3d 24 (D.C. Cir 1993) review denied 511 U.S. 1138 (1994).  Broadly stated, the rule is that where company’s a decision to relocate work was for reasons that did not sufficiently implicate labor costs so that the Union could do nothing that would cause the reversal of the decision, the employer would not be required to bargain that decision with the union.  If, however, the Union could do something to keep the work (such as by reducing labor costs through concessions), the employer would be obligated to bargain about the decision and give the Union an opportunity to make the necessary changes.  Even if the employer would not be required to bargain about the decision to move work, it still would be required to bargain about the effects of the decision (e.g., severance).

 

Currently, if a Union believes that the decision was something they could have reversed by giving concessions, it can challenge the decision through a refusal to bargain charge against the employer.  In such a case, the Company would have to show that the Union could not or would not have made concessions sufficient to stop the work relocation.  The Labor Board, after a trial, would decide whether the Union could have made sufficient concessions and whether the Company violated the law by not bargaining about the decision.  The Board would have the equitable power to require a reversal of the decision, pending bargaining. 

 

Bargaining over a decision to relocate work would require the Company to give the Union the facts on which it based its decision and its conclusion that the Union could make no concession that would induce the Company to change the decision.  Because most Companies do not wish to subject the decision to relocate work to what could be protracted and contentious union negotiations, the preferred course of action is to analyze the factors within the confidential walls of the management offices, leaving it to the Union to challenge the decision in retrospect without interfering with the immediate flow of business.

 

The scenario and process that Leibman is considering is dramatically different:

 

To encourage more constructive good-faith bargaining, we might modify the Dubuque framework, for example, by requiring the employer to timely advise the union whether its contemplated relocation plan turns on labor costs.  If the relocation does not turn on labor costs, the employer would be required to so advise the union and explain the basis of its decision.  If it does turn on labor costs, the employer, upon timely request, would be required to provide the union with information about the labor-cost savings and advise whether, in its view, the union could make concessions that could change its decision.  If the employer provided the information, and the union failed to offer concessions, the union then would be precluded from arguing to the Board that it could have made concessions.  If the employer failed to honor information requests where labor costs are a factor, it would be precluded from arguing that the union could not have made concessions.

 

What is troubling about Leibman’s process is that, in cases where the employer, in good faith, has concluded that the Union could not offer concessions sufficient to keep the work from being transferred, it would still have to deliver to the Union the bases for its decision.  If the Union then seeks the information that backs up the reasons, the Employer would be obligated to provide that information, some of which may be competitively sensitive, or be subject to a refusal to bargain charge.  What would follow could be protracted negotiations. The drag on the ability to make timely decisions could be significant and further justify the unwillingness of companies to put new work into unionized facilities.  Also, the reasons for a decision may implicate other strategic plans of the Company that would, if revealed, endanger other competitive edges that the Company is seeking to achieve, the relocation of work being just a piece in a much larger puzzle.

 

Leibman’s “musings” are additional indications that she is on a drive to broaden the powers of the National Labor Relations Board from an enforcement agency into a policy-making body.  If unchecked, Leibman will inject the Labor Board into the process of doing business to an unprecedented degree and far beyond what Congress intended when it passed the NLRA. 

 

It is clear from the preamble of the NLRA that Congress’s intent was that the Act should be, in both purpose and structure, reactive and remedial, not policy-making.  Even in the portion of the preamble that speaks about “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining,” the means of doing so in the context of remedying violations of the law and not by making policies:

 

It is hereby declared to the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aide or protection.  29 U.S.C.A. Section 151 (emphasis added)

 

Seeming to acknowledge the statutory limitation on the Board’s power, Leibman stopped short of suggesting that the failure of an employer to submit information about its decision to relocate work to the Union in advance of making the decision would constitute an independent violation of the Act.  Rather, she would give the failure to do so (and likewise the failure of a Union to propose concessions to stop the transfer) a preclusive effect in any later challenge to the action before the Board. 

 

These devices of choosing to enforce or not to enforce or to accept or not to accept certain defenses in enforcement proceedings are, in my view, attempts to achieve by circumspection what the law does not permit directly.  As such, the effort is not only intellectually dishonest, but also is reprehensible.  Either way, Employers need to be aware of yet another possible push by the current Labor Board to reshape the way American companies do business.  Curiously, this single-minded drive to deliver more power to unions at the expense of productivity and competitiveness may have the unintended consequence of driving more work away from unionized plants.  At a minimum, companies are well advised to do those things necessary to remain non-union to avoid the dilemma that the current National Labor Relations Board is creating for companies that have to recognize and deal with unions. 

 

 
 
 
 

The Fierce Fight Over A Label: Is The Obama National Labor Relations Board Really A Pro-Union Activist?


The Fierce Fight Over A Label: 

 

Is The Obama National Labor Relations Board A Pro-Union Activist? 

 

 

On February 11, 2011, the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of the Committee on Education and the Workforce conducted an oversight hearing on the National Labor Relations Board.  At the hearing, several witnesses accused the Board of overreaching its statutory authority, invading the province of Congress and abandoning long-established institutional norms.  In short, they labeled the Board a “Union Activist.”

Both the Chairman of the Board, Wilma Leibman, and Acting General Counsel of the Board, Lafe Solomon, shot back denials, citing as evidence that Republican controlled Boards in the past had often reversed precedents and, therefore, turn-about is fair play.  Besides, they both implied, their interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act we long needed corrections of prior perversities. 

The debate over whether the Obama Board is an activist for unions or an equalizing hand, is not the point and I leave that labeling to the reader.  Here is a brief review of recent Board decisions that, based on your point of view, either steadied or rocked the boat…or, as some would argue, punched a hole in the bottom.  Whether an activist or a correctionist, the Labor Board demands the attention of all employers, unionized and union free:

Atlantic Scaffolding:

 

The employer was a nonunion contractor working on Exxon property to erect scaffolding for the use of other contractors during a “changeover” at Exxon’s refinery.  The changeover cost Exxon “millions of dollars” a day due to lost production and utilized over a thousand contractor employees. 

Employees of the scaffolding employer were upset about a change in wage policies and, on the first day of the changeover, staged a work-stoppage to force a reversal of the policy.  Employees who went off duty from one shift stayed on the premises to support about a hundred others from the on-coming shift who refused to work.  The striking Employees stayed in the lunch tent of the employer inside the refinery for about an hour (three hours for the off-duty employees) until Exxon told them to leave, transporting them to one of the parking lots on Exxon’s property.  They remained for another hour in the parking lot, until Exxon told them again to leave.  The strikers went to a vacant area that was still on Exxon property.  Three hours later, about five and half hours after the stoppage had begun, Exxon told them to leave its property altogether and the strikers moved to a public park.  On the following day, some of the strikers returned to work, but seventy continued the work stoppage.  On the next day, two days after the strike had started, the employer, having concluded that the employees were giving no indication of returning to return to work, terminated the employment of the employees.  With the aid of a union, the terminated non-union employees filed an unfair labor practice charge, alleging that they were discharged because of their exercise of rights (a concerted refusal to work) protected by the NLRA.  The work stoppage idled hundreds of contractor employees, in addition to the strikers.

After trial, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held that, while the initial stoppage and delivery of a petition of protest was an exercise of protected rights, at some point over the five and half hours of in-plant work stoppage, causing extraordinary damages to Exxon, the employees lost their protections of the law and were at risk of discharge.  The ALJ cited prior precedents back to 1986 which established that in-plant work stoppages were protected for only a “reasonable” period of time and that, in at least one circumstance, a stoppage of as little as thirty minutes was beyond reasonable and lost the protections of the Act.  Here, since the strikers were on the property of Exxon for more than five and half hours, the ALJ found, their stoppage was clearly beyond reasonable.

The Board reversed the ALJ and held that, because the strikers were peaceful and did not cause disruptions to the work beyond those resulting from their nonperformance of work, the employees had been engaged in protected activity for the duration of the stoppage and could not be terminated without violating the NLRA.  The fact that the strikers had timed their work stoppage for when it would have the maximum impact, said the majority, was consistent with a basic principle of the statute, i.e., “the right of employees to withhold their labor in seeking to improve their terms of employment, and the use of economic weapons such as work stoppages as part of the ‘free play of economic forces’ that should control collective bargaining.”  The Board expressly refused to balance the rights of the property owner and the strikers.  The nonunion employees were entitled to reinstatement with back pay, retroactive benefits and interest compounded daily.

Stevens Media, LLC, d/b/a Hawaii Tribune-Harold:

A supervisor notified an employee that he wanted to meet with him.  A colleague told the employee that the purpose of the meeting was to give the employee a warning and recommended a witness.  The employee requested a witness, but the supervisor denied the request.  The employee called his union representative and asked for guidance.  The union representative advised him to attend the meeting and to take notes.  At the suggestion of other employees, however, the employee brought into the meeting a concealed recording device and recorded the meeting.  When the supervisor later learned of the recording, he suspended the employee for “defiance.”  The employer then issued a rule barring secret recordings of work-related meetings.

The Board, reversing the ALJ, found that the employee’s suspension violated the NLRA because the employee’s conferring with other employees constituted concerted activity and the secret recording was not so egregious that it removed the protections of the law.  The Board also held that the rule was invalid because it was promulgated in response to the exercise of protected conduct.  Although not necessary to decide the case, the Board went on to hold that the rule itself (not just its promulgation in the face of protected conduct) was illegal as “overly broad,” in that it prohibited employees from making secret recordings of matters relevant to the workplace. 

Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino

 

A union petitioned to represent a group of about 140 employees.  The election results were 110 for the union and 123 against representation with 4 challenged ballots.  The union filed 19 objections, all of which were dismissed after trial by the Administrative Law Judge.  On appeal, the Board reversed the ALJ and ordered a new election.  The Board held that the objection that the Employer had solicited grievances and impliedly promised to resolve one of them had merit, dictating the need for a rerun election.

During the campaign leading to the election, two senior officers of the Employer met with employees for the purpose of understanding work related issues and to talk about the union organizing.  During the course of one of the meetings, employees complained about the policy of using part time employees to reduce overtime opportunities for full time employees.  The officers responded that the policy was a failed strategy and that the situation was being “addressed and looked at.”  There was no evidence that either of the officers indicated what, if anything, would be done.  Nevertheless, the Board majority found that the statements “implied” a promise of a remedy that would favor the employees and that, because the officers of the company had not had similar employee meetings prior to the election campaign, the employees would “tend to anticipate improved conditions of employment which might make union representation unnecessary.”  Therefore, the election was tainted and had to be rerun. 

Jurys Boston Hotel:

 

At the expiration of the term of a labor contract, employees filed a petition to decertify the union.  In the campaign period prior to the election, the Employer maintained a cooperative position with the Union and even wrote to the employees expressing the fact that its relationship with the Union was positive.  In addition, the Employer instructed it supervisors to take neutral if not positive line concerning the Union in their conversations with employees.

Prior to the election, but not prior to the filing of the decertification petition, the Union filed unfair labor practice charges concerning seven rules of conduct that it stated violated the law, including an overbroad no solicitation rule, a prohibition against loitering on the property and a grooming standard that prohibited employees from wearing union buttons while at work in the hotel.  All of the rules were old and predated the initial recognition of the Union and the successful negotiation of the labor contract.  When the Union filed its charge, the Employer issued a memo to all employees that withdrew the rules and stated that no rule was intended to interfere with any employee’s legal right to engage in union activity.

The Union lost the election 47-46.  After trial, the Administrative Law Judge held that, while the rules violated the Act, no employee had been disciplined for disobeying any of them during the election period, and that there was no evidence that any employee had even read the rules, let alone that any of the rules had an impact on the election. 

The Board reversed the ALJ, holding “the three rules in question, individually and together, had a reasonable tendency to chill or otherwise interfere with the prounion campaign activities of employees during the election period.”  In making its decision, the Board gave no weight to the fact that the Employer had disavowed the rules prior to the election and had told employees that it did not want any rule to inhibit any employee from engaging in union activity.  The Board also gave no weight to the undisputed finding by the ALJ that the rules had no impact on the election.

Parexel:

 

A nurse complained about her wage rate.  When she continued to complain to her supervisor, the Employer terminated the employee because it was concerned that the employee would cause trouble in the workplace.  The employee had not discussed her complaint with any other employee, although another employee had told her that she and a relative had gotten raises. 

After trial, the ALJ held that the employee had acted on her own behalf and had not engaged in any concerted activity protected by the NLRA; therefore, her discharge did not violate the law.  The Board reversed the ALJ, stating that the discharge had been “pre-emptive,” because the employer was concerned that the employee may engage in concerted activity and that such “pre-emptive” actions violate the law.

American Medical Response:

 

The Company’s social media policy prohibited disparaging remarks about the company or any supervisor.  After an argument with a supervisor that led to discipline, an employee posted on her Facebook page that her supervisor was a “psycho.”  The employee was fired.  The Board issued a complaint against the employer, alleging that, because the comment related to the workplace, the employee’s conduct was protected by the NLRA.  The case was settled in February.

Reuters:

 

A manager of the Company solicited from employees suggestions on how to make the workplace better.  The local shop steward, using Twitter, replied that “One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members.”  The supervisor met with the employee and told her that the comment was offensive.  The supervisor told the Board that she had felt “intimidated” by the supervisor.  The Board issued a complaint, alleging that the employee’s protected conduct was infringed by the supervisor.

Eliason & Knuth:

 

A union had a dispute with a non-union building contractor.  The contractor was doing work for both a restaurant and a hospital.  There or four union representatives held banners approximately four feet by twenty feet as close as fifteen feet in front of the restaurant and one thousand feet in front of the hospital.  In addition, union representatives conducted hand billing at both locations.  The banner in front of the restaurant said in large letters “Don’t Eat RA Sushi” and at the hospital “Shame on [name of hospital]”.  Flanking the words in the banner were the words “Labor Dispute” in smaller letters.  The handbills, but not the banners, stated that the "labor dispute" was with a non-union contractor and not the restaurant or the hospital themselves.

To threaten, coerce or restrain a company with which the union does not have a direct dispute in order to force the company to stop doing business with an employer with which the union has the direct dispute violates the secondary boycott provisions of the NLRA.  The Board held, however, that, since the banners were being held stationary, they were no more confrontational than are banners on the Fourth of July or which preceed a high school marching band.  Therefore, the union was simply informing the public of a dispute with the non-union contractor and did not threaten, coerce or restrain either the restaurant or the hospital to force them to stop dealing with the contractor.   

New Star General Contractors, Inc.

 

A union had a dispute with two general contractors.  During the dispute, the union wrote letters to the contractors’ customers asking them not to do business with the contractors.  The union also used large banners at 19 different sites where the contractors were working and, in some locations, put the banners in front of gates reserved for employees of the contractors’ customers. 

The Board found the conduct was legal and did not constitute “signal” picketing to the employees of the customers urging them not to work.  Therefore, it was not an effort to coerce the customers to stop doing business with the contractors.

Dana Corporation

 

The employer agreed with a union to be neutral to and cooperate with the union in its efforts to organize the employer’s employees.  In partial fulfillment of this commitment, the employer provided the union with the names and addresses of the employees and told its employees that it could work positively with the union.  In addition, the employer agreed to recognize the union based on a card check.  In return, the union agreed that any first contract would be for at least four years, would keep healthcare costs at competitive levels, would allow for mandatory overtime, would permit the company’s team system and would have bargaining differences resolved by an arbitrator, not a strike.

The Board found that the agreements did not constitute “dealing” with the union, but constituted a mere “framework” for a possible agreement.  Therefore, said the Board majority, the employer did not violate the provisions of the law that prohibit an employer from dealing with a union that has not proven that it represents a majority of the employees.  In effect, the Board approved of bargains by unions to obtain employer neutrality and cooperation agreements, giving the green light to further “corporate campaign” coercive conduct by unions to silence employers.

Boeing:

 

The Board has recently alleged that Boeing violated the law when it chose to put a production line in a non-union plant because of a history of multiple and long strikes at its unionized plant.  Simply, Boeing did not want the risk of production delays (and customer penalties) caused by work stoppages.  The Board asserts that a decision based on a history of work stoppages is in retaliation for the exercise of the protected right to strike.  Apparently according to the Board, Boeing is required by law to continue to operate in a manner that gives its unions the greatest leverage possible over its business.

General Counsel Actions:

 

On October 2, 2010 and November 1, 2010, Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon issued two directives to the Regional offices of the Board.  In the first, he instructed the Regions to be on the alert for alleged illegal conduct by employers during union organizing and, when suspected, to seek permission to file for federal court injunctions requiring, for example, the interim reinstatement of an employee who was allegedly discharged for engaging in union activity. In his instruction, Mr. Solomon told the Regions to respond quickly and effectively to nip illegal employer conduct in the bud. 

In the second memo, the General Counsel expanded the kinds of cases that justify injunction applications to include such things as interrogations, surveillance, promises, threats and soliciting of grievances for the purpose of resolving them to affect union activity.  In addition, Mr. Solomon detailed several remedies, in addition to injunctions, that should be used in these “nip-in-the-bud” cases:

·                     Requiring a Notice of employee rights, including the right to form and join unions, to be read to the assembled employees by a senior officer of the employer or by a Board agent with the senior officer standing next to him/her.

·                     Giving the union access to company bulletin boards

·                     Requiring the employer to provide the contact information of all employees to the union

·                     Giving the union organizers access to the employer’s premises during working hours to speak with the employees

·                     Giving union organizers the right to attend and speak at any group meeting held by the employer during working hours to discuss union representation.

·                     Giving union organizers the right to deliver a pre-election speech in the workplace to the employees

************************

Arguing about labels clouds the issue.  The Board may be engaging in pro-union activism or just leveling the playing field.  The label is in the eye of the beholder.  Whatever they are doing, however, the rules are changing and employers must be alert to the changes that affect them. 

In acknowleging this caution, it cannot be overlooked that we have yet to see promised decisions on the following issues:

·                     Restricting no solicitation/no distribution/no access and social media rules

·                     Narrowing the definition of supervisor

·                     Reducing the size of appropriate units to match the extent of union support

·                     Inclusion of agency employees into bargaining units of host company employees

·                     Posting the rights of employees to engage in union organizing and other concerted activities

·                     The legality of rules of conduct that “may” possibly “chill” union activity (e.g., confidentiality of wages and other terms and conditions of employment and disrespectful, harassing, disparaging, damaging and abusive conduct directed toward the company or any employee, to name a few) 

 

Anyone want to guess how those decisions will come out? 

 

Often ignored is the fact that the Board’s interpretations of the law are always retroactive.  For example, if the Board speculates that a particular rule may possibly chill union activity and, therefore, finds the rule unlawful, that rule will be found to have always been unlawful and any other employer with that same rule will be at risk for actions it took to enforce the similar rule, even though those actions predated the Board’s decision.  The Board doesn't say  “in thirty days this rule will be illegal.”  The employer always acts in its own peril when it comes to the Labor Board.

 

It's wise, therefore, for every employer to examine its workplace rules and practices in light of not only what the Board does but also what the Board may do.  That’s not an easy exercise, but, on the risk/benefit continuum, the exercise is worth it.

 
 
 
 
 

James Redeker

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.