Facebook "Like" Button - Protected Activity? It Depends on What You "Like"!

In an ever expanding arc of decisions that extends the NLRA’s protections to a wide range of employee conduct – both on-and off-duty, and in union and non-union settings alike – the NLRB last week decided that merely clicking on Facebook’s “Like” Button was concerted, protected activity. Triple Play Sports Bar, 361 NLRB No. 31 (August 22, 2014).

Triple Play Sports Bar is a non-union employer whose owners had a little difficulty preparing annual payroll tax calculations, and as a result, employees owed state income tax in arrears. One of the employees – not happy at the prospect of back taxes – posted on her Facebook “Status Update,”

Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly‼! Now I OWE money … Wtf‼!

Other employees chimed in with comments of their own (“[the owner] f***** up the paperwork…as per usual”; “[the owner is] such a shady little man. He prolly [sic] pocketed it all from our paychecks…”; “Such an a******”), as did a couple of the Sport’s Bar’s customers. But one employee simply pressed the “Like” button and made no other comments. Company owners terminated the employees for defamation and disloyalty.

The Board, following precedent, found the commenting employees’ conduct to be concerted, protected activity. And the Board went on to answer a question that has been keeping labor relations folks awake at night: Is pressing the innocuous little “Like” button on Facebook “sufficiently meaningful” to rise to the level of concerted, protected activity? According to the Board, it certainly can be. Although the Board members admitted that the “Like” button was ambiguous, they interpreted it here “solely as an expression of approval for the initial status update” (which was protected).

 

The Board went on to find that the other employees’ scathing comments did not lose the protection of the Act, since they were related to a dispute about working conditions (tax withholding), were not directed to the general public, and were not disparaging of the employer’s products or services, reckless, or maliciously untrue. Finally, the employer’s Social Media Policy was unlawfully overbroad in its prohibition of “inappropriate discussions.” In light of the fact that employees had been terminated for participating in a Facebook discussion about the employer and its owners, the employer provided employees with an “authoritative indication” of the scope of its prohibition.

Tread cautiously before terminating employees (union or not) who engage in any activity that could be construed as “concerted” and “protected.” If the “Like” button is protected, what’s next? A “wink-wink” emoticon? ;-)

Supreme Court's Noel Canning Decision Invalidates Numerous NLRB Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated President Obama's 2012 "recess" appointments of several members of the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB" or "Board"), which occurred while the Senate was in a three day recess. As a result, every decision issued by the Board between January 4, 2012, and July 30, 2013, is void, including some highly controversial decisions which negatively impacted employers. National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning (June 26, 2014). A copy of the Noel Canning opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-1281_bodg.pdf

About The Board and Recess Appointments

A full Board consists of five Members, each appointed by the President and subject to Senate confirmation. Historically, the President fills three of the five seats with members from his (or, maybe one day, her) own party, giving the President’s party majority control of the agency charged with overseeing federal labor relations law.

But since 2007, the Board Member appointment process has been broken. In late 2007, the appointments of three Members expired, and political wrangling left those seats unfilled for 27 months. The remaining two Members (one from each party) attempted to continue the Board’s business. In 2010, however, the United States Supreme Court ruled in New Process Steel v. NLRB that the Board must have a quorum of at least three members to take action, invalidating hundreds of decisions issued by the 2--Member Board.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 New Process Steel decision did not break the logjam in the appointment process. As a result, on January 4, 2012, President Obama completely bypassed the Senate by making three “Recess Appointments” to the Board. We blogged about the politics of those appointments here.

The Noel Canning Decision and its Aftermath

In today’s Noel Canning decision, the Supreme Court, affirming the DC Circuit’s decision on different grounds, concluding that the U.S. Constitution’s Recess Appointments Clause applies to both intra-session and inter-session Senate recesses. The Court’s majority noted that the appointments at issue had occurred during a mere three-day recess. The Court ruled, “Three days is too short a time to bring a recess within the scope of the Clause. Thus we conclude that the President lacked the power to make the recess appointments here at issue.” The Court’s 108-page opinion goes on to strongly suggest, however, that recesses of longer than ten days might be sufficient for a President to make a recess appointment.

Because the Board lacked a quorum to act from January 4, 2012 until July 30, 2013, every decision issued between these dates is now invalid. Other acts requiring Board approval, including the appointment of some of the Board’s Regional Directors during the period where the Board lacked a quorum, are also imperiled as a result of the Noel Canning ruling. Regional Director decisions made during this period could conceivably also be challenged.

Some of the Board’s more controversial, and now invalidated, decisions include:

Alan Ritchey, Inc., 359 NLRB No. 40 (Dec. 14, 2012) – in which the Board created an entirely new obligation for employers operating a workplace where a union has been recognized or certified, but no collective bargaining agreement has yet been agreed to. In this setting, the Board concluded, an employer must notify the union and provide it with an opportunity to bargain over individual discretionary discipline before the discipline is imposed.

WKYC-TV, 359 NLRB No. 30 (Dec. 12, 2012) – in which the Board concluded that even after a collective bargaining agreement contract has expired, the employer remains obligated to collect union dues.

American Baptist Homes of the West, 359 NLRB No. 46 (Dec. 16, 2012) – in which the Board overruled longstanding precedent and concluded that employers were not entitled to keep witness statements confidential from a requesting union. Rather, the Board concluded that employers must turn over witness statements as part of the duty to provide information to the union, stating such statements could be withheld.

Fresenius USA Manufacturing, Inc., 358 NLRB 138 (Sept. 19, 2012) – in which the Board concluded that, although the employer’s investigation into a harassment complaint was lawful, its discipline of a union member for writing a vulgar term was unlawful because the activity was “protected” by the National Labor Relations Act.

These and many other invalidated Board decisions no longer govern the labor relations landscape. They may or may not be resurrected upon reexamination by the now properly constituted Board, which includes Members from both political parties and is viewed by some pundits as creating a more even playing field than before. From this, employers may glean some hope. However, the Board’s recently re-proposed “quickie election” rule and its General Counsel’s continued position on social media and other workplace topics, remain sobering for employers.

The Board itself reacted to Noel Canning with a short press release from its Chairman, promising “The Agency is committed to resolving any cases affected by today’s decision as expeditiously as possible.” The Board’s full statement is here: http://nlrb.gov/news-outreach/news-story/statement-nlrb-chairman-mark-gaston-pearce-supreme-courts-noel-canning.

We will keep you posted on further developments following Noel Canning as they occur.

College Football Players Are Employees? Who's Next?

The NLRB’s Regional Director in Chicago issued a decision on March 26 in 13-RC-121359 finding the football players at Northwestern University are employees under the NLRA, over the objections of the University. The Regional Director rejected the University’s arguments that the players, who receive “grant-in-aid scholarships” from the University, are more akin to graduate students, held by the Board not to be employees in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004). The Director also rejected the University’s argument that the players were “temporary employees” who were not eligible for collective bargaining. 

Northwestern’s varsity football team consists of 112 players, 85 of whom receive scholarships that pay for their tuition, fees, room, board, and books in the amount of $61,000 per year ($76,000 per year if they take summer classes). The players receive a “tender” letter at the beginning of their football career that describes the terms and conditions of the offer; are subject to certain rules of conduct; and spend 20-25 hours a week in mandatory activities in the off-season, 40-50 hours per week during the season, and 50-60 hours per week during training camp. The Director found that the players performed “services” for the University that generated revenues of approximately $235 million during the nine-year period of 2003-2012 through the team’s participation in the NCAA Division I and Big Ten Conference through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales, and licensing agreements.

The Director distinguished the graduate assistants who were deemed “not employees” in Brown by the amount of time the Brown students spent on educational studies as compared to work duties. Unlike graduate assistants who were deemed primarily students, the Board reasoned that the players spent more time on athletics “than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs” and those hours were more than the players spent on their academic studies. Also, unlike the football players, who did not receive any academic credit for playing football, the graduate assistants received academic credit for performing their duties, and for the substantial majority, those duties were a requirement for them to obtain their graduate degree. In other words, the graduate assistants’ relationship with the university was an academic one, whereas the players’ relationship was an economic one based on large scholarships. Third, Northwestern’s academic faculty members did not oversee the players’ athletic duties, which lessened any concern that allowing them to engage in collective bargaining would have a negative impact on educational decisions.   Critically, the Board also distinguished between general financial aid, which graduate assistants and fellows receive, and the players’ scholarships, which commentators have dubbed “pay-for-play.”

Although this decision affects only the Northwestern varsity football team, it is certain to have ramifications throughout private college athletics. Commenters have referred to this as a “blockbuster” decision that could change the face of college athletics. 

This decision adds to the existing uncertainty of students’ status as employees, given the Board’s decisions. The NLRB has vacillated on the question of whether graduate students, student research assistants, and graduate student teaching assistants who are paid a stipend and required to perform some teaching or research service to their university should be treated as employees. In 2010, the NLRB voted to reconsider its Brown decision, but the parties in the case reached a voluntary agreement in November 2013, and the union withdrew its petition, so Brown is still controlling law. There also has been much litigation regarding whether university faculty are not covered by the NLRA as “management.” And the state of Board law in the medical field concerning medical residents and interns is uncertain since these students also provide compensated services for hospitals. 

The parties have until April 9, 2014 to file a Request for Review of the decision with the Board in Washington, D.C. Northwestern said it would appeal the Regional Director’s ruling to the full NLRB in Washington.

NLRB Re-Issues Controversial "Quickie" Union Election Rule

On February 5, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") re-issued its controversial “quickie” election rule.  As you may recall, that rule, which was opposed by employer groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, was invalidated by the D.C. District Court in May 2012.  The reissued "quickie" election rule would substantially shorten the time between the filing of a petition and the election to determine whether the union will represent employees--from  approximately 42 days to as little as 10 to 14 days.

The D.C. District court struck down the rule in 2012 for procedural reasons. The Board initially issued the rule in 2011, but its implementation was stayed as a result of a decision of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which held that the rule had been improperly adopted with only two Board member votes, rather than statutorily required three Board member votes, under the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision in New Process Steel.  Since July 2013, however, when the U.S. Senate confirmed President Obama's new appointees, the Board has operated with a full five members for the first time since 2007.

How The "Quickie" Election Rule Would Change Union Elections

Under the current approach, unions must gather authorization cards from at least 30 percent of employees in the unit sought to be represented in order to file a petition for an election with the NLRB. Sometimes employers know about the organizing drive before the petition is filed, but sometimes, they do not. During the pendency of the election (which is currently about 40 days), employers have an opportunity to “campaign” against unionization by providing employees with information about the union, its tactics, and the costs and disadvantages of joining a union. Once the employees vote in the election and the union is certified, the employees may not seek to decertify the union for at least a year, or until after the expiration of the first collective bargaining agreement, whichever is longer.

Under the proposed rule, however, the already short campaign period will be further compressed to as few as 8 to 10 days, resulting in the union getting a quick vote before the employer can make its case against unionization. This means that employees will be voting based on the information provided to them by the union, which is less than complete and somtimes less than factual. The rule also requires employers to provide the union with voter lists in electronic form, including telephone numbers and email addresses. The new rule will also defer most aspects of litigation (such as contesting the appropriateness of the bargaining unit) and any appeals until after the election.

Unions currently win a majority of elections - approximately 69% in 2012. Even without the “quickie” election rule, the Board holds elections promptly: the median in 2010 was 38 days, and 95.1% of elections were held within 56 days. The rule seems unnecessary to meet its stated goal of “more effectively administering the NLRA” and “removing barriers to the fair and expeditious resolution of questions concerning representation.” Instead, its true goal simply appears to be to increase unionization.

Speak Now And Expect Litigation Later

Comments on the proposed rule are due by April 7; the Board will hold a public hearing the same week.  Should the rule be enacted, litigation to challenge the rule on various grounds is likely.  And as always, stay tuned to Stoel Rives World of Employment Law blog for further updates.

NLRB Effectively Scraps Plans (For Now) To Pursue Notice Posting Rule By Deciding Not To Seek Review By U.S. Supreme Court

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has suffered a series of setbacks recently at the hands of federal judges.  In December, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals largely struck down the NLRB's prohibition on class action waivers in arbitration agreements.  Now, on January 6, 2014, the NLRB announced that it won’t seek Supreme Court review of two U.S. Court of Appeals decisions invalidating its Notice Posting Rule, which would have required most private sector employers to post a notice informing employees of their right to organize. The deadline for seeking Supreme Court review passed January 2.

The legal effect of this “non-event” is that it allows to stand two appellate court decisions that invalidated NLRB's 2011 adoption of a rule.  In May 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held in National Ass'n of Manufacturers v. NLRB, 717 F.3d 947 (D.C. Cir. 2013) that requiring employers to post the statement of rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) would be inconsistent with Section 8(c) of the act, which essentially gives employers the right to speak freely to their employees so long as the communications aren’t coercive. The Court also held that NLRB lacked authority to promulgate the regulation, because it would have effectively modified the federal statutory time limit for filing unfair labor practice charges. A month later, the Fourth Circuit ruled against the NLRB and sustained a second challenge to the regulation in Chamber of Commerce v. NLRB, 721 F.3d 152 (4th Cir. 2013).

Had the rule gone into effect, the impact on employers who failed to post the notice could have been severe.  While the NLRB doesn’t audit employers and can’t assess fines or penalties, the consequences of not posting the notice could have included:  (1) extending the time limit for employees and unions to file charges with the NLRB, and (2) a presumption that the failure to post the notice constituted "evidence of unlawful motive” in an unfair labor practice case involving other, unrelated alleged violations of the NLRA.  

The More Things Change...

Technically, the notice rule is invalid only in the D.C. Circuit and the 4th Circuit, although it is difficult to imagine that NLRB will actively seek to enforce the rule elsewhere in the country given its defeats in those jurisdictions.  But the NLRB could still choose to pursue the rule, possibly even in a different form, sometime in the future.

 

It is also important to note that the NLRB's decision to abandon its current litigation involving the enforceability of its posting rule does not change other areas of federal labor law.  These include employees’ substantive rights to organize, or prohibitions against actions by employers that “chill” employee rights to engage in concerted, protected activity. These include the right to:

  • Organize a union to negotiate with employers concerning wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Form, join or assist a union.
  • Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract setting wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions.
  • Discuss terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with co-workers or a union.
  • Join with one or more co-workers to improve wages, benefits and other working conditions.
  • Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.

The invalidation of the NLRB Notice posting rule also does not affect other posting rules, such as the one issued by the Department of Labor's (DOL) Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).  That rule requires federal contractors to post workplace notices informing workers of their rights under the NLRA, although this rule is being challenged as well: on December 8, 2013, the National Association of Manufacturers filed a complaint with the trial court for the District of Columbia.  That lawsuit seeks declaratory, injunctive and other relief, alleging violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee or the right to speak (and not to speak), challenging the OFCCP’s authority to promulgate such a rule, and on the same grounds as the D.C. Court of Appeals invalidated the NLRB’s notice posting rule. National Association of Manufacturers v. Perez, D.D.C., No. 13-cv-1998, complaint filed 12/18/13. 

Stay tuned for further developments on this front right here at Stoel Rives World of Employment.

Chasm Continues To Widen, For Now, Between NLRB and Federal Courts On Enforceability Of Class Action Waivers In Employment Agreements

Just last week, in the case GameStop Corp., a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge applied recent Board precedent and ignored contrary cases from federal courts to find an employer’s arbitration agreement was unenforceable because it waived the right of employees to bring class or collective actions.  While the decision has yet to be approved by the NLRB itself (parties can appeal ALJ decisions to the NLRB), it illustrates the continuing tension in this area between the NLRB (which disfavors class action waivers in employee arbitration agreements) and the federal courts (which favor them). 

As we have reported, U.S. federal courts continue to hold that employees may enter into arbitration agreements in which they waive the right to file class or collective action claims.  The U.S. Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on such waivers in 2011 in the blockbuster case AT&T v. Concepcion, holding that the enforceability of arbitration agreements was governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which preempted any state law purporting to regulate arbitration agreements, including arbitration agreements with class action waivers.  Building on a decades-long line of cases steadily increasing support for the concept of arbitration and similar alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) methods for resolving litigation, Concepcion also held decisively that arbitration agreements could include waivers by the parties of the right to bring lawsuits as class actions.  The U.S. Supreme Court has re-affirmed Concepcion in subsequent decisions.

The NLRB Picks A Fight With the U.S. Supreme Court.  Who Do You Think Will Win?

Concepcion was a consumer class action case involving a class action waiver in a cell phone service agreement between a customer and cell phone provider.  But the Court’s reasoning left little doubt among employment law experts that the decision could apply to employment arbitration agreements as well. One employment expert did take exception to Concepcion, however: namely, the NLRB.  In early 2012, the NLRB issued its controversial opinion in the case D.R. Horton, which held that, despite Concepcion, a class action waiver in an employment agreement was unenforceable because it violated federal labor laws that protect employees’ right to engage in concerted or collective action to advocate for the improvement of working conditions.  While such “concerted action” typically has meant the right to form labor unions, in D.R. Horton, the NLRB held that filing class action discrimination or wage and hour lawsuits was a form of “concerted action” that could not be infringed upon or waived in an arbitration agreement. 

 

D.R. Horton put the NLRB directly at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court and put employers in a difficult spot.  On the one hand, the U.S. Supreme Court approved of the use of class action waivers in arbitration agreements, and many employers were eager to use them in employment agreements to help reduce the exposure to costly class action litigation, especially wage and hour class actions, which have been steadily on the rise over the past decade.  On the other hand, according to the NLRB, such waivers constitute a violation of federal labor law.

 

Right Answer: The U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Many employment law experts believe that D.R. Horton was based on shaky legal reasoning and would likely eventually be overturned by the federal courts.  In fact, lower federal trial courts have almost uniformly ignored D.R. Horton, and relying on Concepcion and related cases have continued to find that employment agreements with class action waivers can be fully enforceable under the FAA.  Employers got an additional boost over the past few weeks, when Ernst & Young’s employee class action arbitration waiver was upheld by both the Second and Ninth Circuits.  See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 16513 (2d Cir. N.Y. Aug. 9, 2013) Richards v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 17488 (9th Cir. Cal. Aug. 21, 2013).  Those cases follow another similar decision from the Eighth Circuit in January of this year in Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050 (8th Cir. Mo. Jan. 7, 2013) (affirming enforceability of class action waiver precluding FLSA collective action lawsuit and finding D.R. Horton “carries little persuasive authority.”)

So while the NLRB may be sticking to its guns for the moment in GameStop Corp., time may be on the side of employers hoping that Concepcion will carry the day.  It is unlikely that the NLRB's GameStop Corp. decision or D.R. Horton will continue to stand for long in light of the overwhelming and growing body of contrary law in the federal courts, which for most purposes trump the NLRB in the federal judicial pecking-order.  (The D.R. Horton decision itself is being reviewed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision expected soon.)  While employers should be aware of the continuing tension and flux over the enforceability of class action wavers in employee arbitration agreements, the developing weight of the law continues to shift in favor of enforceability.  Employers who wish to lower the risk of exposure to very costly and time-consuming class action litigation, particularly wage and hour collective or class actions, may wish to consider using arbitration agreements with appropriate class action waivers.

D.C. Circuit Nixes Board Notice Posting Rule In National Association of Manufacturers v. NLRB

Once again, federal courts have halted efforts by the current National Labor Relations Board ("the Board") to expand its regulatory reach. Earlier this week, in National Association of Manufacturers v. NLRB, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Board’s controversial attempt to require virtually all employers to post a notice advising employees about the requirements of the National Labor Relations Act ("the Act") and the sixty years of interpretations of the federal labor laws.

The Board’s notice-posting rule has had a long and contentious history.  The original petition was filed in 1993, but it was not until 2010 when the Board, by then with a majority of members appointed by President Obama, issued a proposed rule.  The final rule was published in August, 2011, and litigation challenging the Board’s authority began almost immediately.  As we have reported before, the Board had only mixed success.  One district court upheld the rule only in part, and another struck down the rule completely.  While those cases were on appeal, the posting requirement was stayed pending completion of judicial review.

In this week's opinion the D.C. Circuit court rejected the rule in its entirety. The unanimous ruling concluded that the rule interfered with employers’ free speech rights, by requiring them to offer a Board-mandated message with which they might not agree. Section 8(c) of the Act bars the Board from considering non-coercive employer speech as evidence of an unfair labor practice, but the Board’s rule would treat the failure to post its notice as an unfair labor practice.

Two of the panel’s three judges would have gone further, specifically rejecting the claim that the notice posting rule – never required in the previous sixty-four years of the Act – was authorized by Section 6 of the Act, which permits the Board to carry out the Act. The court readily concluded that while the notice-posting rule may be seen as “prophylactic,” there was nothing about it that was necessary to carry out the Act’s substantive provisions.

 

The Board has not yet reacted to this defeat, and what its next steps are remain unclear. Given the breadth of the Circuit court’s ruling, it appears doubtful that the Board could revise its rule to comply with the court’s analysis. Equally unknown is whether the Board will seek review by the United States Supreme Court.

 

For employers, at least one reaction does seem clear: it is unlikely that employers will be required to post the NLRB’s notice any time soon, if ever. The court vacated the rule, so the rule is simply without effect unless the court’s decision is reversed. (Federal contractors should remember, however, that they face an independent obligation to post a similar notice, as we reported.  That obligation remains in full force.  Moreover, the implications of the court’s opinion are potentially far-reaching, and the court’s analysis may call into question numerous posting requirements under other federal statutes.

If you have questions concerning the requirements to post federal labor law advice, or any other posting requirement, please contact your Stoel Rives labor & employment attorney.

Obama NLRB Presents Employers With Several Lumps Of Coal

We continue our recent end-of-year postings (on new California employment laws and things every employer should resolve to do in 2013) with an update on recent cases by the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB" or "Board").  In late December, 2012, the NLRB issued a series of controversial decisions which from an employer’s perspective cannot be considered Christmas presents.  While some of these cases impact only narrow circumstances, each of the decisions dramatically changes the law, always in ways adverse to employers. 

The Board's December 2012 Decisions

In Alan Ritchey, Inc., the Board created an entirely new obligation for employers operating a workplace where a union has been recognized or certified, but no collective bargaining agreement has yet been agreed to. In this setting, the Board concluded, an employer must notify the union and provide it with an opportunity to bargain over individual discretionary discipline before the discipline is imposed. The Board made clear that this obligation requires sufficient advance notice for meaningful bargaining. Moreover, the employer must respond to union requests for information regarding the discipline before such meaningful bargaining can occur. The Board dismissed concerns that the new obligation it had created would be unduly burdensome for employers, suggesting that there may be circumstances in which an employee could be removed from a job prior to bargaining, when leaving employee on the job might present “a serious imminent danger to the employer’s business or personnel.”

In WKYC-TV, Inc., the Board reversed fifty year old precedent and concluded that even after a collective bargaining agreement contract has expired, the employer remains obligated to collect union dues. The general rule has long been that when a collective bargaining agreement expires, the employer must continue to abide by the contract because its terms and conditions represent the status quo, and the employer is not entitled to change the status quo until the parties have reached a new agreement or have bargained to impasse. For fifty years, one of the few exceptions to that rule has been the so-called “dues check off,” which enables employees to pay their union dues through payroll deduction. Recognizing that under the National Labor Relations Act the underlying obligation for employees to be members of the union expired with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the Board had long held that the obligation to collect dues for the union similarly expired. In WKYC-TV, the Board concluded that there was no relationship between the employees’ obligation to maintain union membership, and the employers’ act of collecting dues to pay for their membership.  The Board then held that employers must continue to collect dues for the union.

The Board also issued decisions that will affect a more limited number of employers. In Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy, the Board concluded that it had jurisdiction over a “public charter school” operated by a non-profit corporation. In Latino Express, the Board changed various aspects of how it implements back pay awards. If these issues are of concern to you, please contact your Stoel Rives labor lawyer.

Finally, in American Baptist Homes of the West d/b/a Piedmont Gardens, the Board overruled a 35-year old precedent and concluded that employers were not entitled to keep witness statements confidential from a requesting union. Under the Act, employers have the obligation to furnish the union with information relevant to employees’ terms and conditions of employment. This includes information relevant to specific instances of discipline, including information pertaining to witnesses to the incident leading to discipline. Since the late 1970s, however, the Board had recognized that this obligation did not extend to formal witness statements collected by an employer, where an employee had been promised confidentiality and reviewed and approved the witness statement. In Piedmont Gardens, the Board rejected this rule, instead concluding that witness statements are merely another type of confidential information, about which employers must balance their confidentiality concerns with the union’s need to review the information. Even when the employer has legitimate confidentiality concerns, the employer must be willing to bargain with the union about a possible accommodation to address the union’s need for the information.  The Board was unconcerned about the possibility for intimidation or coercion of witnesses, in the absence of clear proof.

What Do These Decisions Mean For 2013?

Each of these decisions is a radical departure from existing law, as the Board implicitly acknowledged. In all three, the Board expressly overruled prior case law.  Moreover, the Board admitted that it would work an injustice to apply the decisions in Alan Ritchey, WKYC-TV and Piedmont Gardens retrospectively. Thus, the new obligations created in those cases will only be applied to cases occurring after the decisions were issued.

Prospective application is cold comfort to employers now attempting to deal with these cases on an ongoing basis. The Alan Ritchey decision provides little guidance as to what might amount to the “exigent circumstances” preventing removal of the employee prior to the bargaining the Board now requires. Moreover, the decision is unclear as to the extent and duration of that bargaining. The Board did not address, for example, the delay that could be caused by responding to union information requests prior to such bargaining. Perhaps even more troubling, the Board seemed unconcerned about the fundamental revision it was making to the terms and conditions of employment it ordered for affected employees. Even though never yet covered by any collective bargaining agreement, these at-will employees were no longer truly at-will employees.

WKYC-TV offers no offset for the bargaining leverage taken away from the employer, which must now continue to provide financial support to the union with which it is involved in contract negotiations, regardless how acrimonious those negotiations might be. In Piedmont Gardens, the Board appeared unwilling to give any credence to the notion that bargaining unit employees may face coercion or retribution from their union or their pro-union co-workers if their identity must be revealed to the union.

Finally, employers must carefully consider what the Board’s actions imply for what may be in the future. The Obama Board has demonstrated a complete willingness to reverse decades-old precedent, so long as overturning that precedent helps unions. The recent Board cases emphasize that employers dealing with unions are entering an era of unprecedented uncertainty. For example, Alan Ritchey arose only in the context of a newly certified union, bargaining for its first contract. Will the Board extend Alan Ritchey to cases arising after a collective bargaining agreement has expired, before a successor agreement has been finalized? Given the Obama Board’s willingness to change well-settled rules, employers should proceed continuously when determining their next steps. If you face any of the issues raised by these recent Board actions, you should your contact your Stoel Rives labor lawyer.

11th Circuit Disagrees With NLRB And Finds Nurses Are "Supervisors" In Lakeland Health Care Decision

Several weeks ago the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit weighed in on the ongoing debate in labor law over the definition of who is a “supervisor,” and therefore not eligible to join a union, under the federal National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The opinion, Lakeland Health Care Associates , is but the latest installment in an area of labor law that has been evolving over at least the past decade.  While this line of cases, including Lakeland Health Care, are specific to the “supervisor” status of nurses working in the residential care industry, the relevant legal tests are the same for all industries. Employers who may wish to oppose unionization efforts among employees it believes are supervisors will therefore want to continue to pay close attention to these cases to see what could be done to maximize the chance that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) would also find those employees are supervisors. 

LPNs Supervise Other Employees, But Are They “Supervisors” Under The NLRA?

As with many things in labor law, determining who is a “supervisor” is rarely straightforward: simply giving someone the title of “supervisor” is never enough. In many cases employees may have only partial supervisory authority—the issue in cases like Lakeland Health Care is whether the employees had enough supervisory authority to be “supervisors” under the NLRA.

Lakeland Health Care operates residential care facilities (until recently known commonly as “nursing homes”). Consistent with industry-wide practice, Lakeland Health Care staffs its facility primarily with Certified Nursing Assistants (“CNAs”), who perform most of the day-to-day work providing physical care to residents—such as feeding, dressing, bathing, turning, etc.—and charge nurses, usually Licensed Practical Nurses (“LPNs”) or sometimes Registered Nurses (“RNs”), who provide basic medical care to residents such as administering medication, inserting or monitoring intravenous lines, and performing blood draws. Also consistent with industry practice, the RNs and LPNs have general day-to-day supervision over the CNAs with whom they work each shift, but do not have independent hire/fire authority.

Section 2(11) of the NLRA and related case law has a very detailed and complex definition of who is a “supervisor.” To summarize, a “supervisor” is any employee who has the authority to hire, fire, discipline, or assign work to other employees, or to effectively recommend any of those actions, or who “responsibly direct[s]” other employees in their day-to-day work. The supervisor must also use “independent judgment” in performing those supervisory functions and not merely report employee conduct to higher level managers to take action.  Those who meet the "supervisors" tests are not "employees" eligible to organize into unions under the NLRA.

After reviewing the testimony of company witnesses, and employee handbooks and written job descriptions, the 11th Circuit concluded, in contrast to the NLRB, that the Lakeland Health Care LPNs were supervisors under that NLRA definition. Specifically, the Court found that even though LPNs could not hire or fire CNAs, they could independently issue them written and verbal coaching (i.e., discipline) and assign work. The Court also found that LPNs “responsibly directed” CNAs in their day-to-day work in that the LPN ultimately could be held responsible, and disciplined, if the CNAs failed to provide adequate care to residents. The Court found that the LPNs exercised sufficient “independent judgment” in performing all of these functions with respect to CNAs.

A Brief Recent History Of “Supervisor” Status

The supervisory status of charge nurses in the residential care industry has been the subject of much labor litigation over the past 10 years (perhaps because that industry has specifically been targeted for organization drives by many major national and local unions). While the reasoning in Lakeland Health Care summarized above may sound straight-forward, other cases with nearly identical facts have reached very differently results. These differing outcomes make it difficult for employers to know when employees are supervisors, and appear to be largely influenced by two factors.

First, the NLRB’s own interpretation of the law can change dramatically over time depending on whether a pro-union Democrat or pro-business Republican is President. For example, in 2006 the Bush-era Board issued employer-friendly decisions that broadly applied the “supervisor” exception in its Oakwood Health Care “trilogy” (also involving the status of charge nurses in residential care facilities). In so doing, Oakwood Health Care departed from Clinton-era NLRB decisions that had made it much more difficult to show that employees like LPNs are “supervisors.” In recent years, the Obama Board has distinguished Oakwood Health Care to turn back the clock to the broader Clinton-era interpretations of “supervisor.” Perhaps most difficult, the NLRB rarely outright reverses earlier opinions, but instead tries to find subtle factual nuances to harmonize its decisions, even though the different outcomes sometimes seem to be based on very similar factual patterns. 

Second, there is also tension between the (generally pro-union) NLRB and the federal circuit courts, which have jurisdiction to reverse those decisions and may tend to be more pro-employer. For example, the 11th Circuit in Lakeland Health Care specifically held that the employer must only show that the LPNs have the authority to perform the supervisory functions (through written job descriptions, handbooks, and the testimony of managers), not that they demonstrate a practice of actually having used that authority in specific cases. That holding may be a departure from recent cases where the Board found under virtually identical facts that charge nurses were not supervisors, because, even though written policies and job descriptions showed they had supervisory authority, they did not actually discipline CNAs, or did not do so often enough. 

Back To The Future:  More Conflicting Decisions To Come?

It will be interesting to see how the Obama Board will respond to the 11th Circuit’s opinion in Lakeland Health Care.  As we have blogged about repeatedly, the current Obama Board has been very active, tends to be pro-union, and is not afraid of taking positions potentially at odds with federal courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court.  And the NLRB could only be emboldened now that President Obama has won re-election. It is therefore difficult to see how this tug-of-war will play out.  Maybe the only thing that is certain is that more fireworks are likely over the next few months and years in this area.

In the meantime, Lakeland Health Care may offer some help to employers who wish to oppose unionization efforts involving potentially supervisory employees.  While circuit court opinions are not technically binding on the NLRB or its regional offices, they can be persuasive authority.  Also, while this line of cases is particularly relevant for employers like Lakeland in residential care, the “supervisor” tests are the same everywhere.  Employers in all industries may wish to pay particular attention to the weight the 11th Circuit gave to the handbooks and written job descriptions, which helped show that the LPNs in that case had the necessary supervisory authority, and revise their own written job descriptions if needed. If you find yourself in an NLRB hearing involving the supervisory status of employees, the quality of your written job descriptions and handbooks could help make the difference in proving your case.

Where There Is At-Will, There Is A Way: NLRB Issues New Guidance On "At Will" Employment Policies

On Halloween, the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) General Counsel’s Division of Advice handed out a rare treat to employers by issuing two Advice Memos (Mimi's Café, Case No. 28-CA-0844365 and Rocha Transportation, Case No. 32-CA-086799), deeming two particular (and common forms of) at-will employment policies contained in employee handbooks lawful under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act").  

Earlier this year, an Administrative Law Judge frightened many employers by ruling a particular company’s “at-will” policy violated the Act because it theoretically could make employees believe that they could not form a union or otherwise advocate to change their at-will employment status. That challenged policy stated, “I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way.” The case, American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Division, Case No. 28-CA-23443 (February 1, 2012), was settled before the NLRB could review it on appeal. 

The Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda distinguished American Red Cross case from Mimi's Café and Rocha Transportation – noting that the at-will policy in American Red Cross used the personal pronoun “I” (“I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way”), which as written essentially constituted an impermissible waiver of any right of employees to try and change at-will status (i.e., to try to form a union).  The Division of Advice also noted that the policy in American Red Cross declared that the at-will employment relationship could never be modified under any circumstances whatsoever, which could be interpreted as chilling employees’ rights under the Act to engage in protected concerted activity such as forming a union.   Finally, the Division of Advice, perhaps dismissively, noted that American Red Cross had settled before getting to the Board level.

In contrast, in the two cases and policies analyzed by the Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda, one employer’s handbook specifically provided for possible changes to an employee’s at-will employment status if made in writing and signed by the company president, and the other employer’s handbook merely said that no one in management had authority to make changes to the at-will policy. Specifically, the two at-will policies validated by the Division of Advice provided:

At-Will Employment

The relationship between you and Mimi’s Café is referred to as “employment at will.” This means that your employment can be terminated at any time for any reason, with or without cause, with or without notice, by you or the Company. No representative of the Company has authority to enter into any agreement contrary to the foregoing "employment at will" relationship. Nothing contained in this handbook creates an express or implied contract of employment.

Statement of At-Will Employment Status

Employment with Rocha Transportation is employment at-will. Employment at-will may be terminated with or without cause and with or without notice at any time by the employee or the Company. Nothing in this Handbook or in any document or statement shall limit the right to terminate employment at-will. No manager, supervisor, or employee of Rocha Transportation has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will. Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

The Rocha Transportation handbook also contained an "Acknowledgment of Receipt" that employees were required to sign, acknowledging that "nothing in the employee handbook creates or is intended to create a promise, contract, or representation of continued employment ...” The Division of Advice noted this was important in showing that the employer was trying to protect against contract claims, as opposed to trying to restrict employees’ rights under the Act.

The Division of Advice’s memoranda provide a welcome respite from an otherwise troubling (for employers) spate of Board decisions affecting both non-union and unionized employers on topics such as social media, off-duty access, and confidentiality policies. Although the Division of Advice’s memoranda are technically not binding, the Board’s Acting General Counsel has instructed all NLRB Regional Offices to consult with the Division of Advice before issuing any complaint challenging an employer’s at-will policy. And employers now have some helpful guidance from these memoranda concerning how to word at-will policies.

 

As the Election Nears, Employers Should be Cautious of Politics in the Workplace

From the Presidential debates to lawn signs, and TV ads to the Voters’ Pamphlet in your mailbox, there’s no denying that election season is in full swing. For employers, the home stretch to November 6 means not only around-the-clock coverage, but the potential for spirited debates—and resulting employee discord—in the workplace. Although with limited exception political activity or affiliation is not a protected status, and Oregon employers no longer have to worry about giving employees time off to vote due to mail-in ballots, the impending election still has significant potential to invoke myriad workplace issues ranging from discrimination and harassment to free speech and bullying. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to help guide employers over the next several weeks and keep polarizing political discourse from disrupting your workplace:

* Do set the tone. If you haven’t already, employers should clearly communicate their expectations to employees and foster a culture of mutual respect and understanding. Diversity—even with respect to politics—can be embraced as a positive. Employers lead the way by conveying their acceptance of varying ideologies, and encouraging employees to handle differences of opinion civilly and without letting it affect normal operations. Political conversations between employees often lead to discussion of sensitive (and protected) issues such as race, religion, immigration, and women’s rights. However, election season should not provide a license for employees to harass or bully one another by attacking contrasting political views, bragging about which ballot measures did or did not pass, or gloating over a candidate’s defeat. Employers can minimize risk by reminding employees that their policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation apply to all political discussions, and investigating any complaints promptly. Moreover, some employers have in fact included political activity in their EEO or anti-harassment policies, so it may be prudent to dust off and review your handbook, because employees certainly will know what you have promised. Similarly, given that unions are frequently politically active, some union contracts prohibit politics-based discrimination.  

* Don’t allow bad behavior in the name of “free speech.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no blanket right of “free speech” in a private workplace. The First Amendment covers only state action, and private sector employers are therefore free to limit political discussions in the workplace. Be careful, however, that any such limitations don’t run afoul of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (see next "do," below) or federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Read on for more election "dos and don'ts" below!

 

* Do be mindful of the NLRA. The NLRA offers some protections for employees’ political speech, both on and off the job, and even if you do not have a union-based workforce. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states on its website, employees have the right to work together to “improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren’t in a union.” (See https://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity). Employers should be particularly cautious to ensure that any restrictions on employee communications, political or otherwise, don’t impede on employees’ ability to act in concert with respect to work-related matters such that they would run afoul of Section 7 protections.

* Don’t forget about social media. Undoubtedly, social media has played a significant role in 2012—and it’s likely becoming an increasing presence in your employees’ day-to-day lives, too. Employers should remind employees of any policies regulating internet usage in the workplace, along with any policies specifically governing social media. Although such policies should encourage employees to be respectful, they should not be so broad-sweeping as to prohibit political discussions over social media, as this again has the risk of crossing over into Section 7 protections referenced above. The NLRB has stated that employers should not “caution employees against online discussions that could become heated or controversial.”

* Do be cautious of Company political endorsements. It’s common for employers to provide general election information to employees, such as informing them when ballots are mailed or simply encouraging them to vote. In recent years, however, many employers have taken it further and perhaps garnered unintended press for making political statements—most often during election season. Although there is no per se law prohibiting a private company from voicing its own political views to employees, employers who do so should also make clear that employees retain the sole right to vote as they choose. Employers should also be mindful of the resulting pitfalls. For example, would a gay or lesbian employee be more likely to bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim against an employer that had voiced its opposition to same-sex marriage? There’s no way to know, but most employers probably wouldn’t want to be the test case.    

* Don’t enforce policies on a selective basis. Many employers maintain no-solicitation or no-distribution policies, which generally prohibit employees from requesting support for or distributing materials about non-work events or causes. To be effective, however, these policies must be both strictly and evenly enforced. Don’t let a Democrat post political flyers, but not a Republican. And don’t let the CEO hand out buttons supporting the candidate of his or her choice, but prohibit employees from doing the same thing.

Do know if local or state law protects provides greater protections. As mentioned above, political activity is not a protected status for most employees working for private employers under federal law, and only a handful of states have promulgated laws making it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate based on an employee’s political activity or affiliation. Oregon in Washington have not, but California is one of the few states that has. Some protections are derived on a more local level, such as the City of Seattle, which prohibits discrimination based on political ideology, affiliation or similar terms. Public employers need to be ever mindful of the circumstances when political speech crosses the threshold into free speech, thus precluding adverse action on that basis.

* Don’t hesitate to reach out if things get sticky. Election-related employment issues can be complex and difficult to navigate. If you run into problems in the pre- or post-election flurry, contact your employment attorney.  Although it may seem that all anyone cares about these days is the election, you’ve still got a business to run—and help is available.

Happy voting!

NLRB Puts Kibosh On Some Employer Social Media Policies

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) continues to closely scrutinize employers’ social media policies and practices. As employers struggle to craft policies that promote productivity while at the same time protect employees’ rights, both unionized and non-unionized employers need to be aware of recent NLRB decisions and their impact on employer policies:

Social-Media Based Termination Can Be Acceptable, But Rule Requiring “Courtesy” Is Not

On September 28, 2012, a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the termination of a car salesman who posted photographs on Facebook ridiculing his employer, but it rejected the employer’s rule requiring courteous behavior. (Karl Knauz Motors Inc., 358 N.L.R.B. No. 164, Sept. 28, 2012 [released Oct. 1, 2012]). Knauz marked the first time a panel of the NLRB decided a case involving social media; previously, all NLRB guidance in this area came from ALJ decisions or the Board’s General Counsel Memoranda. In Knauz, a sales employee had complained on his Facebook page about his employer, a BMW car dealership, posting photos and criticizing bad food the dealer offered at a sales event; he had also discussed those concerns with other coworkers. He also posted critical comments and photos about an accident during a test drive at the dealership. The employer terminated the employee for his Facebook postings and for violating the employer’s courtesy policy. That policy stated that “[e]veryone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees,” and that “[n]o one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.”

The NLRB ultimately declined to decide whether the employee’s complaints about the food were protected activity under the NLRA. The ALJ below had held the food complaints were protected because the employee and his coworkers conceivably were concerned that the low-quality food offered at the sales event would deter customers from coming, thus leading to lower sales commissions for the employees. Instead, the NLRB upheld the employee’s termination, agreeing with the ALJ that the employee’s Facebook postings relating to the on-site accident were not related to any employees’ terms or conditions of employment. 

 

Most interestingly, the NLRB decided, in a 2-1 split decision, that the employer’s rule on courtesy violated the NLRA because it could reasonably be construed by employees as prohibiting protected concerted activities, “such as employees’ protected statements—whether to coworkers, supervisors, managers, or third parties who deal with the Respondent— that object to their working conditions and seek the support of others in improving them.”

Employer Cannot Prohibit Use of Social Media During “Company Time”

On September 20, 2012, an ALJ found that an employer’s policy prohibiting the use of social media on “Company time” violated the NLRA. (EchoStar Techs. LLC, NLRB ALJ, No. 27-CA-066726, Sept. 20, 2012). This decision is consistent with recent NLRB General Counsel Memoranda (here and here), which tend to distinguish between “company time” and “work time.” Indeed, the General Counsel has explicitly approved a social media policy that directs employees to “[r]efrain from using social media while on work time or on equipment we provide.” A restriction as broad as prohibiting social media use during “company time” would encompass nonworking time, such as paid breaks, which could interfere with employees’ ability to exercise their rights to concerted activity under the NLRA. 

The employer argued that the social-media prohibition was a common-sense rule designed to prevent employees from engaging in personal activities on the job—a problem that has become pervasive in the workplace, substantially affecting productivity. The employer also argued that the “Company time” prohibition was reasonable in context because it was included in a policy restricting the use of company equipment, which the employer argued it could restrict whether during working time or nonworking time. Without significant discussion, the ALJ simply ruled that the prohibition was unlawful and must be removed from the employee handbook.

What to Take Away

The NLRB law on social media policies is continuing to evolve in favor of employees. It is a delicate line to balance between (1) appropriate limitations on the use of social media, and (2) protecting employees’ rights of concerted activity under the NLRA to confer for their mutual benefit regarding the terms and conditions of employment. It seems clear, however, that broad-based bans on the use of social media during work-time, and efforts to control the nature of employees’ communications on social media as they relate to working conditions, will not be viewed favorably by the NLRB.

NLRB Launches New Webpage Regarding Employee Rights

Continuing its campaign to educate employees about their rights, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) yesterday launched a public webpage that explains the rights of employees (union or non-union) to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The launch of this webpage follows shortly on the heels of a ruling by a South Carolina federal court that struck down the NLRB's requirement that employers post a notice of employee rights under the NLRA.

In addition to providing a description of protected concerted activity, the page recites recent Board cases involving such activity and identifies them by geographic location. These cases include examples involving a construction crew fired after refusing to work in the rain near exposed electrical wires, a customer service representative who lost her job after discussing her wages with a coworker, an engineer at a vegetable packing plant fired after reporting safety concerns affecting other employees, a paramedic fired after posting work-related grievances on Facebook, and poultry workers fired after discussing their grievances with a newspaper reporter. In each instance, the Board has indicated that the involved conduct is protected by the NLRA and that firing employees for engaging in such conduct violates the NLRA.

As was prudent in the face of the now-defunct NLRB posting requirement, employers should review their employment policies to ensure compliance with the NLRA. Employers also should train managers regarding the requirements of the NLRA specifically relating to protected concerted activity. Finally, employers should consider implementing employee education programs and reminding employees of the internal complaint procedures available to them.

The NLRB's new webpage can be found at www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity

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NLRB's Court Woes Continue: New Election Rules Struck Down

The Obama NLRB’s regulatory agenda continues to fare poorly in the federal courts.  On the heels of court decisions staying the NLRB’s new “notice” requirement, see previous posts here, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit has just struck down the NLRB’s new rules designed to speed up union representation elections.

Employers and their representatives have been concerned about the Board’s new election rules since they were issued in September.  See our previous posting here.  Employers’ concerns were heightened when the Board’s Acting General Counsel issued a “Guidance Memorandum” directing the Board’s Regional Offices on how to implement the new rules.  That Guidance Memorandum is available here.  That Guidance Memorandum articulated several “best practices” that would further accelerate the election process.

 

In response to the new rules, the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups sued the Board, citing a number of substantive and procedural objections to the new rules.  Judge James Boasberg (an Obama appointee) struck down the Board’s decision solely on procedural reasons: the absence of a quorum.  Just two years ago, the United States Supreme Court had emphasized the importance of the Board having a minimum of three members to act.  The court had emphasized in New Process Steel that the quorum requirement is not, under the Taft-Hartley Act, a mere “technical obstacle.”  Ironically, concern about the then-impending loss of a quorum in December, 2011, caused the Board to rush its normal internal processes.  Member Hayes had previously expressed his opposition to the proposed rules.  When the final proposed rules were circulated among the three Board members, member Hayes did not participate – but the two member majority adopted the rules anyway.  The District Court concluded that the Board thus acted without a quorum:

 

“According to Woody Allen, 80% of life is just showing up.  When it comes to satisfying a quorum requirement, though, showing up is even more important than that.”

 

In the absence of a lawful quorum, the rules were not properly adopted, and therefore must be struck down.  The judge expressly did not reach any of the substantive objections to the rules.

 

This will likely raise substantial uncertainty in the near term.  The Board could attempt to readopt the rules with its current membership – but doing so would only be more controversial: any quorum relying on the President’s “recess” appointments to the Board (made at a time when the Senate was not in recess!) will be subject to further attack.  It is also not clear what course Regional Offices will take as to elections that were being handled under the now-stricken rules or what effect will be given to the Acting General Counsel’s “Guidance Memorandum.”

 

Employers should stay tuned for further developments – and if you receive a union election petition you should call your Stoel Rives labor lawyer immediately!

UPDATE: NLRB Postpones Posting Rule Indefinitely

In response to two federal court cases we previously blogged about here and here, the NLRB has indefinitely postponed implementation of its notice posting rule pending appeals in both of those cases.  The bottom line is that no employer needs to post the notice for the time being.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear the NLRB’s appeal of an emergency injunction that court issued against the rule, but the hearing will not occur before September 2012.  In the trial court ruling in that case, the judge found the NLRB's posting rule valid, but its enforcement provisions invalid.  The NLRB is also appealing the South Carolina federal trial court decision we previously blogged about, in which a judge deemed the NLRB's entire posting rule invalid.  No schedule has yet been set for the South Carolina appeal.

See the NLRB’s statement about this issue here.

UPDATE: DC Court of Appeals Delays Implementation of NLRB Posting Requirement

The NLRB’s new posting rule, which would apply to virtually all private sector employers, was scheduled to go in effect on April 30, 2012.  Yesterday, we blogged about a South Carolina federal trial court decision striking down the posting rule.  More good news for employers arrived today, as the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued an emergency injunction preserving the “status quo” and delaying implementation of the NLRB’s posting rule until that Court of Appeals determines its validity.  The D.C. trial court had previously determined the posting rule was valid (contrary to the South Carolina case) but that its remedies were invalid.  Oral argument in the D.C. appellate case is currently estimated to occur in September 2012.  A copy of the D.C. Court of Appeals injunction decision is here.

 

We now have two courts that have stymied the NLRB posting rule.  It is still unknown whether the NLRB will appeal the South Carolina and D.C. Court of Appeals decisions.  But for now, absent an emergency appeal, it appears that the NLRB’s posting rule will, at a minimum, be delayed for several months.  We will keep you “posted” as developments occur.

South Carolina Federal Court Holds NLRB's Notice Posting is Unlawful

As previously blogged here, a federal court located in the District of Columbia upheld the National Labor Relations Board's (“NLRB”) rule requiring nearly all private sector employers, whether unionized or not, to post a notice to their employees about certain employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act.  While upholding the rule, that federal court did at least strike down the rule’s main enforcement provisions.  A copy of that federal court decision is here.  As we blogged then, another legal challenge to the NLRB’s rule was also pending in a South Carolina federal court.  That decision is now here, and it is a good one for employers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce challenged the NLRB’s rule.  On April 13, 2012 (perhaps Friday the 13th from the NLRB’s perspective), the federal judge in that South Carolina case ruled that the NLRB’s entire posting rule is invalid, finding the NLRB exceeded its authority when it required employers to post notices explaining workers’ rights to form a union. In his ruling, the South Carolina federal judge said the NLRB lacked the legal authority to issue the notice and thus the rule was not lawful.  “Based on the statutory scheme, legislative history, history of evolving congressional regulation in the area, and a consideration of other federal labor statutes, the court finds that Congress did not intend to impose a notice-posting obligation on employers, nor did it explicitly or implicitly delegate authority to the Board to regulate employers in this manner,” the court ruled.

Many labor law professionals feel that the NLRB has become overly aggressive in supporting and expanding union rights during the Obama administration.  This sentiment is especially strong in a conservative state like South Carolina, which also was at the center of a now-settled dispute between the NLRB and Boeing over Boeing’s decision to move production of its 787 Dreamliner airplane from Washington State to South Carolina.  The South Carolina federal judge appears to agree that the NLRB is becoming overly aggressive, stating, “The Board also went seventy-five years without promulgating a notice-posting rule, but it has now decided to flex its newly-discovered rulemaking muscles.”  A copy of the South Carolina decision is here. Its authority is technically legally limited to that particular court, but because of its import we expect it to have an effect nationally as the NLRB seeks to regroup and rethink what it will do.  If the NLRB does not appeal the South Carolina court’s decision, the ruling will stand and, from a practical perspective the posting requirement will be invalidated nationally.  But most pundits anticipate that the NLRB will file an appeal over the South Carolina decision.

The bottom line is that we now have two conflicting federal court rulings on the issue, and await the NLRB’s decision on whether it will appeal the South Carolina ruling, and/or delay implementation of its previously stated April 30, 2012 posting deadline.  Stay tuned.

NLRB Posting Requirements - Update

Update: A federal trial court in the District of Columbia has upheld the notice posting requirement in the National Labor Relations Board's (“NLRB”) recently issued final rule requiring nearly all private sector employers, whether unionized or not, to post a notice to their employees about certain employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act. To view the Court's decision, click here.  The court also held, however, that the rule’s main enforcement provisions, including making an employer’s failure to post a per se unfair labor practice, are invalid. Unless this decision is overturned or another court finds the rule to be invalid, the notice posting requirement will still take effect April 30, 2012. An appeal is likely in the District of Columbia case, and at least one other court challenge is pending in South Carolina.


For additional information regarding the NLRB's rule and posting requirement, including links to the rule and the poster employers must post, see our prior discussion on this topic by following this
link.

NLRB Finds Employee Arbitration Agreement Waiving Class Claims Violates Federal Labor Law

In DR Horton, a decision issued on January 3 and applicable to most private sector employers, whether unionized or not, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that federal labor law prevents employers from requiring their employees, as a condition of employment, to agree to broad waivers that would deny their right to pursue employment-related class actions both in court and in arbitration, leaving them no forum for pursuing class or collective claims.  As a result, an important tool for managing the risk of employment-related litigation has been taken away (for now). 

The facts of the case are straightforward.  DR Horton, like many employers, required its employees to sign an arbitration agreement as a condition of employment.  The agreement required employees to arbitrate all claims arising out of their employment, and precluded arbitrators from issuing class or group relief.  As a result, employees were prevented from bringing class or collective actions in any forum.  Relying on this agreement, DR Horton refused to arbitrate a class action alleging that it had misclassified certain employees as exempt from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

 

Not so fast, according to the NLRB.  Tracing federal labor law back to its origins, the NLRB found that the filing of a class action “to redress workplace wrongs or improve working conditions” is activity at “the core” of what Congress intended to protect when it enacted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  This intent, the NLRB reasoned, is reflected in Section 7 of the Act, which gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purposes of “mutual aid or protection.”  Relying on Section 7, the NLRB found that Employers cannot compel their employees, as a condition of employment, to entirely waive the right to bring class or collective actions.

 

The NLRB’s ruling in DR Horton clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which held that arbitration clauses that waive the right to bring class claims entirely (in the commercial contract context) may be lawful and enforceable.  But unless and until the courts intervene to resolve this tension, requiring your employees to completely waive the right to bring employment-related class or collective actions - a common feature of arbitration agreements - is probably no longer permissible under federal labor law.

 

If You're Interested In Learning More, Sign Up For Our Webinar

Stoel Rives is hosting a webinar on January 11, 2012, to address employee arbitration agreements generally and the DR Horton decision in particular.  Click here if you're interested in learning more or attending.

NLRB's New "Vote Now, Litigate Later" Union Election Rules To Become Effective April 2012

 The NLRB gave organized labor a meaningful gift just before the holidays by issuing a final rule adopting new election case procedures that will likely result in more and faster union elections, and probably also result in more employers having unionized workforces.  The new rule becomes effective on April 30, 2012.

The New Year:  Out With The Old Rules...

During union campaigns, the union and the employer may disagree (vigorously) about the proper size ("scope") of the proposed bargaining unit.  Such disputes can include whether certain employees are "supervisory" employees and thus ineligible to vote, or whether different classifications of employees share enough of a "community of interest" to be included in the same bargaining unit, and covered by the same contract.  How those disputes are resolved often determine the outcome of the election.  Under the existing (er, now old) election rules, employers had the opportunity to litigate these types of bargaining unit scope issues before the election. 

...In With The New

The NLRB's new rule essentially eliminates the employer's opportunity to litigate, prior to the election, any disputes over the scope of the bargaining unit proposed by the union.  Under the rule, such issues will ordinarily be addressed only after the election takes place.  Employers should be aware of how this "vote now, litigate later" rule could impact union elections. 

Shorter Election Campaigns: Under the old rules, litigating bargaining unit scope issues usually delayed the election, giving employers additional time to discuss the pros and cons of unions with its workers before the vote.  That additional campaign period is now lost, depriving employers of valuable time to counter an organizing campaign that may have started months before the union went to the NLRB seeking an election. 

Greater Difficulty in Challenging The Union's Proposed Unit: Although employers may technically be able to litigate unit scope and voter eligibility issues after the NLRB conducts the election, in those cases where the vote results in a "yes" vote for the union (which under the old rules happened more than 60% of the time), employers will be in the difficult position of having to contest threshold legal issues after the employees have already "won" the right to representation.  This procedure tilts the playing field in favor of unions. 

Considered in the context of the NLRB's August 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare, this rule means that the petitioning union will get a quick election in the unit of employees it has chosen to organize.  Specialty Healthcare enables unions to organize small or "micro" units of employees (such as single classifications of employees or individual departments).  The Board held that for an employer to add excluded employees to the union's proposed unit, it must demonstrate that the excluded employees share an "overwhelming community of interest" with the employees the union seeks to represent.  In a dissenting opinion, NLRB Member Brian Hayes noted that this test makes it “virtually impossible” for the employer to prove the union's proposed unit is not proper.  To make matters worse, now the Employer will ordinarily have to make that argument after the union has already "won." 

Why Now?  Election Year Politics, That's Why.

That the NLRB issued these new rules now probably had less to do with the holiday spirit than with an election of a different sort--the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the related gridlock in the U.S. Congress.  Up until last week, the Board had three members (out of a possible five) which, after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in New Process Steel, is the minimum required for the NLRB to decide cases and issue regulations.  Last week was when President Obama's controversial recess appointment of Member Craig Becker ended.  The NLRB may have wanted to enact the new rules before it was reduced to two members again, as that may be the last opportunity in an election year for the Obama Administration to do something substantial for organized labor, an important constituency.  While nominations for the three NLRB Member vacancies are pending, the gridlocked Senate is not expected to act on those nominations any time soon.  While the President could make another recess appointment to ensure a functioning, three-member NLRB, that risks (further) alienating Senate Republicans, all 47 of whom recently signed a letter urging the President not to fill NLRB vacancies using recess appointments.  The next few weeks, before Congress reconvenes on January 23 from its holiday recess, could be very interesting for NLRB-watchers.  Stay tuned...

Update!

 

...well you didn't have to stay tuned for long!  President Obama has announced three recess appointments to the NLRB.  The appointees include two Democrats (Richard Griffin and Sharon Block) and one Republican (Terence Flynn), giving Democrats a 3-2 Board majority.  The President’s decision to bypass the Senate confirmation process quickly drew the ire of Senate Republicans, but the President chose that fight over the alternative of allowing the NLRB to go through a prolonged period in which it was unable to issue decisions or adopt regulations.  As a result of these appointments, we can expect more pro-labor decisions in 2012.

 

Update - New Rule Requires Employers to Post Notice of Employee NLRA Rights

In order to allow more time for legal challenges to its notice-posting rule to be resolved, the National Labor Relations Board has again postponed the rule's effective date, this time to April 30, 2012.  Stay tuned.

For additional information regarding the NLRB's new rule and posting requirement, including links to the new rule and the poster employers must post, see our prior post on this topic by following this link.

New Rule Requires Employers to Post Notice of Employee NLRA Rights

Your bulletin board full of required workplace postings just got more crowded. The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has issued a final rule that will require nearly all private sector employers, whether unionized or not, to post a notice to their employees about certain employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The notice must be posted by no later than November 14, 2011 (now postponed until January 31, 2012, see update below).  The new rule is one of many new developments arising from the current NLRB’s implementation of the Obama administration’s labor policy.

This new notice is a form designed by the NLRB. Among other things, it contains:

 

·         A summary of employee rights under the NLRA, including the right to discuss wages and working conditions with co-workers or a union, form or join a union, take collective action to improve working conditions, and engage in other protected activities.

·         Examples of violations of those rights, and an affirmation that unlawful conduct will not be permitted.

·         Information about the NLRB, the NLRB’s contact information, and details on how to file an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB.

·         A statement about the employer's obligation to bargain in good faith if a union has been selected by employees.

 

This new rule applies to almost all employers except public sector employers, very small employers below the NLRB’s jurisdictional standard for impacting interstate commerce, and other limited classes of employers outside of the NLRA’s jurisdiction. The NLRB may find that an employer’s failure to post the notice constitutes an unfair labor practice. The remedy for a violation may not be severe because the NLRB cannot impose fines – but much worse, a violation can be evidence of unlawful motive and prevent the running of the statute of limitations.

 

The full text of the actual required notice is available here. Private sector employers will be required to post this notice in conspicuous places, including where they customarily post other workplace notices. In addition, employers who customarily post personnel policies and rules on an internet or intranet site must include this new notice there or provide a link to the NLRB’s website section containing the notice. If an employer has employees working at another employer’s site, it will also need to determine whether it can post notices at that site if the other employer does not already have the notice posted. If 20 percent or more of an employer’s employees are not proficient in English and speak the same foreign language, the notice must also be posted in that language. The NLRB will provide translations in such circumstances. Copies of the required 11x17 posters will be available at no cost from the NLRB upon request, and will also be downloadable from the NLRB’s website, www.nlrb.gov. A federal contractor will be regarded as complying with the NLRB’s new posting requirement if it already posts the notice required of federal contractors by the U.S. Department of Labor. See our earlier discussion of those posting requirements here. 

 

The NLRB fact sheet with further information about the rule is available here. There are likely to be legal challenges to the NLRB’s new notice posting rule, and at least one bill has already been introduced in Congress seeking to invalidate it. For now, employers will need to be prepared to comply with the new posting requirement. While already unionized employers will likely see little impact from the new rule other than the actual posting requirement itself, non-unionized employers may be faced with employees raising questions about their rights under the NLRA. Because such questions will invariably be directed toward their immediate supervisors, it is important for non-unionized employers to make sure that supervisors are properly trained regarding how to maintain a union-free environment without violating the NLRA. Non-unionized employers might also be tempted to post their own notice alongside the new NLRB poster, advising employees why a union is not needed. As with all such efforts, missteps can lead to challenges before the NLRB, so employers should consult with their Stoel Rives labor attorney.

 

UPDATE:  On September 14, 2011, the NLRB made available the poster that employers must post.  The link to that poster is here.  The NLRB recently postponed the implementation date for its new notice-posting rule by more than two months in order to allow for enhanced education and outreach to employers.  See here.  The new effective date of the rule, and the date by which the new notice must be posted, is January 31, 2012.

NLRB Facebook Settlement Creates More Questions Than It Answers

On Monday, February 7, the NLRB issued a news release about a settlement in a case in which an employee criticized her supervisor on her Facebook page. In that post, she called her supervisor a “17,” (which is terminology for a psychiatric patient) and said her supervisor was being a “d***” and a “scum***." This new development has garnered a significant amount of media attention.

We say “development” because, despite the media furor over this case, there was no landmark opinion issued by the NLRB, which is the way the Board makes a policy change or an announces a new policy. Instead, an NLRB Regional Director in Hartford, Connecticut -- there are over 35 of them nationwide -- decided to issue a complaint alleging the firing of the employee was unlawful and the policy was overbroad. After the complaint was issued, there was no hearing before an administrative law judge and there was no ruling by Members of the NLRB in Washington. There was simply a settlement for an undisclosed amount, which was likely modest since remedies under the NLRA are limited to reinstatement (waived in this case), back pay and benefits. The company also agreed to revise its policy.

So, what’s to be learned from this settlement? Not much. The basic rule that came into play is an employee’s right to engage in protected and concerted activity – sometimes referred to as “free speech” in the workplace. Under NLRB case law, broad rights are provided to employees to criticize their supervisors, their employer, and, in general, to communicate in the work place about good and bad developments, such as pay raises and bonuses. However, employees cannot make threats of physical violence and they cannot engage in disloyal conduct.

Unresolved questions going forward include:

(1) Whether an employee is engaged in concerted activity when posting on a social media platform?

(2) What is protected and unprotected on social media, and do the same rules that apply to verbal communications in the workplace apply to social media?

(3) Does it make a difference if the post is done during non-work time?

There are several issues to work through and unfortunately this case clarified very little.
 

Editor's Note: For more in-depth analysis and discussion about this case, check out Victor's appearance on KGW's Live at 7.

NLRB to Consider Scope of Permissible Solicitation On Employer Premises

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is on its way to making some significant changes, which favor organized labor.  One change that may be coming relates to non-solicitation rules.  These rules determine when a union organizer can come on a company’s property and solicit employees to join a union.  For the time being, a company can prohibit a union organizer from coming on its property so long as it’s not discriminating by allowing other third parties on its property to solicit employees. 

There are exceptions; for example, an employer can allow third parties on its property if it’s intended as a benefit for employees, such as a yoga or fitness company holding meetings on site to describe group rates.  An employer is also allowed to bring charities such as United Way on site to solicit employees.  If an employer allows only these types of solicitations, it is not considered discriminatory to prohibit union organizers from the premises.  The blurry line relates to the situation when employees solicit for third parties that are good causes but not charities, such as the girl scouts or fundraisers for public schools. 

A pending NLRB case called Roundy’s involved distribution of handbills on company property in front of its retail stores (sidewalks and parking lots).  The handbills asked consumers not to shop at Roundy’s claiming unfair wages.  The Union contends that Roundy’s allowed several outside third parties on its property – bloodmobiles, Salvation Army, Veteran of Foreign Wars, Shriners and others – and that union agents should be allowed the same access.  

The NLRB took the unusual step of requesting amicus briefs from interested parties before it makes a decision.  This often signals a major policy shift.  Given the labor-friendly composition of the NLRB, it’s likely to give greater rights for union organizers to enter onto a company’s property, such as parking lots, sidewalks and possibly inside the facility itself – in a non-work area.  If this becomes law, it’ll be much easier for an organizer to solicit an employee on company property. 

One step employers can take now is to review and update their non-solicitation policy and ensure that’s it’s being applied in a consistent manner.  That is, ensure that you’re not allowing third parties on your property to solicit your employees – or you may be opening your door to a union organizer. 

Supreme Court Invalidates Nearly 600 Decisions Made by Two-Member NLRB

This morning the United States Supreme Court issued a highly-anticipated decision in New Process Steel v. National Labor Relations Board, ruling 5-4 to effectively invalidate almost 600 decisions made by the NLRB during the time it only had two members. 

Normally, the NLRB is comprised of five members, but typically delegates its powers to decide most cases to panels of three members, in which a two-member majority can (and often does) carry the day.  However, from late 2007 through March 2010, the Board only had two members.  Those two members argued that they had the authority to decide cases as long as they agreed on the decision; after all, had they been the majority on a three-person panel, they would have made the same decisions.

The Supreme Court disagreed.  It held that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law that gives the NLRB its powers, only allows the Board to delegate the authority to decide cases to a panel of at least three members.  Accordingly, no two-member panel could have decision-making authority under the NLRA. 

What does this mean for employers?  If you had one of the 600 cases decided by the two-member Board, it may mean that your case will have to be reconsidered by a new three-member panel.  We suspect, however, that the vast majority of those cases will be decided the same way.  For the rest of us, this decision will have little impact.  The two-member Board did not take up any controversial cases and did not issue any decisions that would overturn existing precedent or make "new law." 

President Obama Uses Recess Appointments to Fill NLRB, EEOC Seats

This week President Obama announced that he would make recess appointments to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The move allows the White House to bypass the Senate confirmation process, which promised to be extremely contentious. 

The appointments will add two Democratic members to the NLRB:  Craig Becker and Mark Pearce.  Both appointees were strongly opposed by Republicans because of their anticipated pro-labor viewpoints.  Becker, a labor law professor, has been associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1990 and has also served as an AFL-CIO staff counsel since 2004.  Pearce is a partner with the firm of Creighton, Pearce, Johnsen & Giroux in Buffalo, New York, where he represents unions and employees.  President Obama's recess appointments do not include Republican nominee Brian E. Hayes, the Republicans' labor policy director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but Hayes' Senate confirmation is not expected to encounter any significant roadblocks. 

The EEOC appointments will bring the agency up to a full compliment of five directors.  The new appointments include: Jacqueline Berrien as EEOC chair, Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic.  Berrien has served as associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF) in New York since 2004 where she has worked on voting rights and political participation issues.  Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor, played a leading role in drafting the original Americans with Disabilities Act and more recently worked on the ADA Amendments Act.  She has also worked on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban employment bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Lipnic is a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Washington, D.C. and served in President George W. Bush's administration as assistant secretary of labor for employment standards from 2002 until 2009.   In addition, EEOC supervisory attorney P. David Lopez will appointed to the post of EEOC general counsel.

What will these appointments mean for employers?  First, expect to see more rule changes.  Both the EEOC and the NLRB have for some time operated without quorums, meaning that the agencies have not been able to take on any controversial cases or make significant rule changes.  Now that they have enough members, expect a flurry of activity from both bodies.  For the NLRB in particular, this may mean reversals of many pro-employer decisions made during the Bush years.  Second, expect both agencies to get a lot more employee-friendly.  President Obama's appointments will appease labor unions and employee advocates who adamantly supported his campaign but until now have not received much in return.  Those groups expect to get a return on their investment, and these appointments will go along way towards making that happen. 

Supreme Court to Rule on Authority of Two-Member NLRB

This week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in New Process Steel v. NLRB and determine whether the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or "the Board") has the authority to decide cases with only two sitting members. 

The NLRB is the independent federal agency that administers the National Labor Relations Act, the primary law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector.  Typically, the NLRB is made up of five members, appointed by the President.  There are currently three vacancies on the Board, leaving only two sitting members.  The statute governing the NLRB's powers (29 U.S.C. § 153(b), if you really care) provides that "three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board."  Nevertheless, the two remaining Board members have decided a number of cases, under the theory that as long as those two members agree, they would have formed the majority of any three-member quorum anyway. 

The Court will resolve a split between the federal appellate courts.  In New Process Steel v. NLRB (the case on appeal) the Seventh Circuit held that the current two-member NLRB does have the power to decide cases.  The First Circuit agreed in in Northeastern Land Services v. NLRB.  However, the D.C. Circuit disagreed in Laurel Baye Healthcare of Lake Lanier v. NLRB and rejected the power of a two-member Board to do anything.  If you want to read more about this dispute, click here to read New Process Steel's Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the Court. 

For most employers, New Process Steel will have little relevance--none of the cases decided by the two-member Board were particularly controversial, and none represented a significant departure from existing NLRB law.  The only employers with a significant stake in the outcome of New Process Steel will be those employers whose cases were ruled on by the two-member Board.  If the Court reverses New Process Steel, those cases will be reheard by a future three-member panel, and will likely be upheld. 

Proposed Legislation Would Allow Employers to Fire Union Salts

The Truth in Employment Act of 2009 (TEA) would allow employers to lawfully fire employees who are suspected of “salting,” or attempting to organize the contractor's workforce from within on behalf of a labor union.  The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and in the House by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). 

TEA would amend the National Labor Relations Act to protect the employer from being required to hire any person who is seeking a job in order to promote interests unrelated to those of the employer.  “Small businesses should never be forced to hire undercover union organizers who seek to bully workers and harm companies,” said Senator DeMint. “We must pass the Truth in Employment Act or successful small businesses will remain vulnerable to union salting tactics that threaten jobs."  Click here to read Senator DeMint's press release on TEA

Does TEA have a realistic chance of becoming law?  Not really.  The Republicans unsuccessfully tried to pass TEA in 2005 and 2007, and that was when they had a fellow Rebpublican in the White House and much better numbers in both houses.  Expect this one to die on the vine. 

Employers can take some solace, however; last year, the National Labor Relations Board held in Toering Electric Company  that an employer is not required to hire an employee who is not "genuinely interested in seeking to establish an employment relationship with the employer," thus significantly restricting the amount of salt in unions' diets.  If you have concerns about union salting in your workplace, you might want to read the NLRB's Guideline Memorandum Concerning Toering Electric Company

Major Budget Increases for Federal Labor and Employment Enforcment Agencies

The Obama Administration has released its fiscal year 2010 budget request.  Among the items are several increases for the federal agencies that oversee labor and employment matters.  Here are some highlights:

Assuming they are passed by Congress, these increases reverse a long trend under the Bush Administration to cut funding to the federal agencies that enforce labor and employment laws.  Employers can expect increased enforcement of those laws by the federal government in the years to come.

President Obama Announces NLRB Nominations

Last Friday, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Craig Becker and Mark Pearce as Members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government agency that administers the National Labor Relations Act, the primary law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector.  Click Here to read the White House Press release

Normally the Board has five members, three from the President's party and two from the other, but right now the Board has only two members, one Democrat and one Republican.  Both of these nominees are Democrats, meaning the next will be a Republican.  Here's what the White House has to say about each:

  • Craig Becker currently serves as Associate General Counsel to both the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale College in 1978 and received his J.D. in 1981 from Yale Law School where he was an Editor of the Yale Law Journal. After law school he clerked for the Honorable Donald P. Lay, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. For the past 27 years, he has practiced and taught labor law. He was a Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law between 1989 and 1994 and has also taught at the University of Chicago and Georgetown Law Schools. He has published numerous articles on labor and employment law in scholarly journals, including the Harvard Law Review and Chicago Law Review, and has argued labor and employment cases in virtually every federal court of appeals and before the United States Supreme Court.
  • Mark Gaston Pearce has been a labor lawyer for his entire career. He is one of the founding partners of the Buffalo, New York law firm of Creighton, Pearce, Johnsen & Giroux where he practices union side labor and employment law before state and federal courts and agencies including the N.Y.S. Public Employment Relations Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Labor Relations Board. Pearce in 2008 was appointed by the NYS Governor to serve as a Board Member on the New York State Industrial Board of Appeals, an independent quasi-judicial agency responsible for review of certain rulings and compliance orders of the NYS Department of Labor in matters including wage and hour law. Pearce has taught several courses in the labor studies program at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations Extension. He is a Fellow in the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. Prior to 2002, Pearce practiced union side labor law and employment law at Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury & Cambria LLP. From 1979 to 1994, he was an attorney and District Trial Specialist for the NLRB in Buffalo, NY. Pearce received his J.D. from State University of New York, and his B.A. from Cornell University.

If affirmed by the Senate, these appointments, along with NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman, will give the NLRB a solid pro-labor majority for the next four years.  Regardless of what happens with the Employee Free Choice Act, you can safely expect major changes in labor law, as the Obama Board likely charts a much different course than the Board did during the Bush years. 

President Obama Nominates Wilma Liebman to Chair NLRB

Late last month, President Obama appointed Wilma B. Liebman to chair the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that enforces federal labor law.  Click here to read the NLRB's press release on the appointment.  Chairman Liebman has served on the Board since November 14, 1997.  First appointed by President Clinton, she is now serving her third term, which will expire on August 27, 2011. 

Chairman Liebman is considered one of its most union-friendly members, and was often a strongly dissenting voice on the Board during the eight years of the Bush administration.  Her appointment was not unexpected, and confirms predictions that the NLRB would shift to the left during the Obama administration. 

Don't think the Board will change under Liebman's watch?  Watch her testify before congress regarding some controversial decisions under the Bush Board, and perhaps you will change your mind:

 

Supreme Court Rejects Appeal on Aliens' Right to Vote in Union Elections

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court declined to review a ruling from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holding that unauthorized aliens are "employees" under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and therefore entitled to cast votes in a union election. 

In Agri Processor Co. v. NLRB, the employees elected the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 342 as their bargaining agent in 2005 election; however, the employer refused to bargain with the union on the basis that 17 of the 21 employees who cast ballots were not legally authorized to work in the United States, and therefore not "employees" under the NLRA. 

In a 2-1 decision that was affirmed by the D.C. Circuit, the National Labor Relations Board held that the certification of Local 342 was valid because the voters were employees under the NLRA even if they were hired in violation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  That decision will stand now that the Supreme Court has passed on its opportunity to review the case.  With the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act appearing all but certain, authorization cards signed by unauthorized alien employees will likely be held valid as well. 

NLRB 2008 Report Shows Efficient, Aggressive Enforcement of Labor Law

Ronald Meisburg, General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued his annual Summary of Operations memo on October 29, 2008.  (The NLRB is the federal agency that enforces our country's labor laws and conducts union elections.)  Mr. Meisburg's memo is full of interesting news and developments on all facets of the NLRB's operations.  To read the complete memo, click here.  If you want the Cliff's Notes version, here you go:

  • Case intake is up: ULP cases are up 1.6%, from 22,147 in FY 2007 to 22,501 in FY 2008.   New representation cases are up 2.3% from 3,324 to 3,400. 
  • Elections are being held sooner:  the NLRB closed 83.5% of all representation cases within 100 days, exceeding its target of 80%.  93% of all initial union representation elections were conducted within 56 days of the filing of the petition, with a median of 39 days from filing.
  • ULPs are being investigated faster:  The Board closed 68.1 percent of all ULP cases within 120 days, meeting its target of 68%, and closed 75.2% of meritorious ULP cases within 365 days, meeting its target of 75%.
  • The NLRB is winning a lot:  Its Regional Offices won 90.8% of Board and Administrative Law Judge unfair labor practice decisions in whole or in part in FY 2008 (up 5% from 2007), and it recovered a total of $70,001,594 on behalf of employees as backpay or reimbursement of fees, dues, and fines.  It obtained reinstatement for 1,564 terminated employees.
  • The NLRB is using injunctions.  The Board authorized a total of 28 Section 10(j) injunction cases in FY 2008, as compared to 25  in FY 2007. The “success rate” (the percentage of 10(j) cases in which the NLRB achieved either a satisfactory settlement or substantial victory in litigation) was 84%.
  • The NLRB is more efficient:  It met all three of its primary goals, closing 83.50% of all
    representation cases within 100 days (target 80%), 68.10% of all unfair labor practice cases within 120 days (target 68%), and 75.22% of all meritorious unfair labor practice cases within 365 days (target 75%). 

What does this mean for employers?  The NLRB is more efficient and pushing cases to resolve more quickly, which may give employers less time to respond to petitions for election.  Also, the Board continues to be more aggressive in litigation and in seeking injunctions, which is rarely good news for employers.  In short, don't take the NLRB lightly. 

Starbucks Settles NLRB Charge With Wobbly Organizer

The New York Times is reporting that Starbucks has settled with the National Labor Relations Board an unfair labor practice claim filed by a former employee who alleged he was terminated for attempting to organize his coworkers to join the Industrial Workers of the World, aka "the Wobblies." 

Under the terms of the settlement, Starbucks will post a notice in the employee's store for 60 days informing workers they have a right to unionize under federal law.  Starbucks will also remove from its files any reference to the employee's firing and will repay him for any loss of earnings.  (Starbucks had already voluntarily reinstated the employee before he filed his charge with the NLRB).  For more about the Starbucks Workers' Union (a branch of the IWW), click here.

This case is a reminder to employers that it is unlawful to discharge or take any other adverse action against an employee because of that employee's support for or activities on behalf of a labor union.  Just because the employee supports a union does not require you to give him or her special treatment, nor does it make them immune for discipline unrelated to their union activities; however, if you terminate a union organizer, you proceed at your own (substantial) risk. 

"Permanent" Strike Replacements Can Be Employed At Will

Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled  that an employer does not violate the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to reinstate economic strikers because it had hired permanent replacements, even though those "permanent" workers are at-will employees.   The decision in United Steelworkers v. NLRB upheld an earlier National Labor Relations Board ruling, also in favor of the employer. 

The court upheld the NLRB's ruling board permissibly held that employer and the replacement employees had a "mutual understanding" that, despite an at-will clause in the replacements' employment applications, their employment was, for purposes of replacing the strikers, "permanent."  The Court agreed with the NLRB that an at-will employment clause in the striker replacements' job applications did not make them "temporary" replacements who normally must be terminated in favor of returning strikers. 

This ruling gives employers greater flexibility in hiring permanent replacement workers in the event of a strike.  Nevertheless, whether an employer may "permanently" replace strikers in a particular strike is a very complex legal issue.  In any strike situation, employers need to be very careful about whether to hire "permanent" or "temporary" replacement workers, and to only permanently replace strikers if they are legally entitled to do so.  And in any event, employers may not ever replace a striking Tina Fey, because she's too funny

Ninth Circuit Overturns NLRB in Dues Checkoff Case

Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned for the second time a decision by the National Labor Relations Board, and held that two Las Vegas casinos violated the National Labor Relations Act by unilaterally terminating dues checkoff without first bargaining with the union over that decision.   Local Joint Executive Bd v. NLRB (9th Cir 08/27/2008).  

The employer argued that the parties' collective bargaining agreement allowed it to end dues checkoff at the expiration of the agreement and the NLRB agreed; the Ninth Circuit, however, held that the contract language does not show a "clear and unmistakable waiver" of the unions' right to bargain over ending dues checkoff.  This was the second time this case was before the Ninth Circuit - the first time, the court remanded the case to the NLRB to "articulate a reasoned explanation" for its conclusion that dues-checkoff disputes should be excluded from the "unilateral change doctrine" recognized in NLRB v. Katz, 369 US 736 (1962). 

The lesson for union employers:  remember your obligation to bargain with the union in good faith before making any unilateral change to the terms and conditions of employment, unless there the union has clearly and unmistakenly waived its right to bargain over that change.  Unilateral changes might get a pass from the current NLRB, but they are unlikely to be tolerated by the appellate courts. 
 

NLRB Issues New Guidelines on Employee Political Activity

You have an employee who is using the breakroom as his bully pulpit, discussing his political views with his coworkers.  Some coworkers complain to you that they don't want to hear it, so you call the employee in to your office and tell him to keep his views and opinions to himself.  A no-brainer, right?  Not so simple, according to new guidelines from the National Labor Relations Board on employee's political activities in the workplace.

According to the new guidelines, employee political speech that touches on employment issues may be protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.  In essence, if there is a direct nexus between employment-related concerns and the specific issues that are the subject of the political speech, then the speech is protected.  Of course, you can still counsel the employee to confine his activities to appropriate places and times, if it is interfering with work. 

So, the employee's views on why the U.S. should pull out of the U.N.?  Why industrial hemp should be legalized?  Probably not protected speech.  The employee's views on the minimum wage, or the expansion of medical marijuana laws to require workplace accommodation?  Probably both protected under the NLRA.