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.