National Labor Relations Act

As we have previously reported, Unions currently face a serious existential threat as the unionized workforce in America continuously declines and the looming threat of a National Right to Work law steadily grows.  Recognizing that when employees have a choice, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds, Unions have not taken these deleterious developments lying down and have deployed numerous countermeasures designed to increase their dues paying membership, including unprecedented forays into previously untouched industries and membership pools.  These efforts extend beyond “employees” as unions now are also targeting independent contractors, with one of the most notable being the robust ridesharing industry made popular by apps like Uber and Lyft.

Uber and Lyft have become synonymous with affordable, on-demand transportation throughout the world.  Their innovative business model has reinvigorated the for-hire transportation market –historically dominated by powerful unions and restrictive legislation – with some much needed competition.  These apps have created an inexpensive and efficient alternative in on-demand transportation while giving entrepreneurial drivers an opportunity to earn extra income on their own schedule and their own terms.  This could all change, though, if unions successfully infiltrate the rideshare market:  drivers could lose the flexibility they enjoy, consumers could see a sharp rise in costs and the rideshare market could lose its competitive ability to dynamically adjust to consumer demands.

A Federal District Court Rejects The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Motion For Injunction Relief Pending Appeal Of the Court’s Finding That Seattle’s Ordinance Is Not Preempted By The National Labor Relations Act. 

Rideshare drivers utilizing apps like Uber and Lyft are independent contractors and, therefore, are expressly excluded from the collective bargaining rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).  In December 2015, Seattle passed Ordinance 124968, which conferred collective bargaining rights on rideshare drivers.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce subsequently filed an action in the U.S. District Court of Washington, Western District, claiming, among other things, that the Ordinance was preempted by the Act.  On April 7, 2017, the District Court temporarily enjoyed enforcement of the Ordinance pending the outcome of the litigation.

However, on August 1, 2017, the District Court lifted the injunction after it granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Act’s independent contractor exclusion did not preempt state law. The Court likened the independent contractor exclusion to other exclusions in the Act, such as the agricultural laborer and domestic service worker exclusions, which have long been held not to preempt state law.

In doing so, the District Court rejected the Chamber’s attempt to analogize the independent contractor exclusion to the Act’s supervisor exclusion, which decidedly preempts state law.  Citing to the legislative history of the supervisor exclusion, the District Court reasoned that Congress deemed the unionization of supervisors “a threat to the very purposes of the Act as well as the interests of both labor and management,” and these destructive consequences “would arise regardless of whether supervisors unionized under NLRA or under state law.”  By contrast, the District Court concluded, Congress did not identify unionization of independent contractors “as a threat to the free flow of goods, nor is there any indication that allowing them to participate in the collective action would threaten the independence of labor organizations or the rights of management.”

As further support for its holding, the District Court cited Section 14(a) of the Act, which allows supervisors to organize, but precludes the Board from compelling employers to recognize such unions.  No similar provision exists for independent contractors, agricultural laborers, or domestic workers, so the Court concluded the Act treated these groups alike.

Interestingly, the District Court did not engage in a deep analysis of Congress’ purpose for excluding independent contractors or whether, like the supervisor exclusion, those reasons justified preemption of state law, let alone did it examine whether the Act’s purpose in regulating the free flow of commerce constituted preemption.  It merely concluded that the justifications behind the independent contractor exclusion were different than those driving the supervisor exclusion and, because there was no express exemption specifically applicable to independent contractors like there was for supervisors, independent contractors were intended to be treated “more like the other excluded groups who have long been the subject of state regulation.”

On August 24, 2017, the Chamber filed a motion for injunction relief pending appeal of the District Court’s Order.  The same federal judge that granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss denied the Chamber’s motion for preliminary injunction, thereby permitting the Union to commence its organizing drive of Uber and Lyft drivers.

Ninth Circuit Temporarily Grants The Chambers’ Emergency Motion For Injunction Relief While It Considers The Merits Of The Motion

On August 29, 2017, the Chamber filed an emergency motion for injunctive relief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.  The Ninth Circuit temporarily granted the motion while the Court considered the merits of the motion.  Seattle filed its opposition to the Motion on September 5, 2017, and the Chamber’s filed its reply September 7, 2017.  Importantly, this truly could only be a temporary reprieve for rideshare companies as the Ninth Circuit Provided no indication one way or the other as to its leaning on the merits.

The Fate Of Unionization of Rideshare Drivers

Ninth Circuit’s ruling effectively stayed the Union’s right to begin its efforts to unionize Uber and Lyft drivers, but this reprieve may only be temporary.  If the Ninth Circuit denies the emergency motion, it will clear the way for Teamsters, Local 117 to begin its organizing drive while the Chamber appeals the dismissal of its lawsuit to block the Ordinance.  However, even if the Court denies injunctive relief and Teamsters successfully organizes the drivers, the Ninth Circuit could still decide the Act preempts Seattle’s unprecedented ordinance and reverse the Union’s gain.  If Ninth Circuit sides with Seattle, though, and permits the Ordinance to stand, this scenario will likely be repeated in other cities across the nation as Unions, with the aid of the members of city councils and legislatures they funded and elected, desperately seek to reverse the long running trend of declining membership by targeting new industries.  And if this occurs, the rideshare industry will likely be dramatically transformed in fundamental ways – ways that may destroy the flexibility and affordability that made this industry so popular in the first place.

In NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, the Second Circuit held that an employee’s expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family – did not result in the employee losing the protection of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).  But even though the Second Circuit conferred protected status on this unquestionably obscene post, it did not create a protected right to level profane verbal assaults on management when discussing union business.  Such conduct has been, and will continue to be, unprotected in most circumstances.  Nevertheless, this case acts as an important reminder for employers:  if they choose to allow vulgar conduct in the workplace when it does not pertain to union activity, they must also allow it when it does.

A Pier Sixty Employee Posted an Obscene, Pro-Union Facebook Message in Response to Management’s Alleged Disrespect

Pier Sixty operates a catering company in New York, New York. In 2011, its employees embarked on a tense organizing campaign during which management allegedly threatened employees with discipline for union activity, disparately enforced a no-talk rule and told employees “bargaining would start from scratch” if they voted to unionize.  Two days before the election, Hernan Perez, a server employed by Pier Sixty, posted a vulgar Facebook message after his supervisor gave him instructions in a tone that Perez perceived to be disrespectful.  That post read:

Bob is such a NASTY [expletive] don’t know how to talk to people!!!  [Expletive] his mother and his entire [expletive] family!!!!  What a LOSER!!!  Vote YES for the UNION.

The Facebook post was accessible by Perez’s Facebook friends, which included 10 coworkers, and by the public, although Perez insisted he did not know that at the time. Perez deleted the post three days later, but Pier Sixty management had already learned about it and, after conducting an investigation, terminated Perez.

Perez’s Facebook Post Constituted Protected Activity Because Pier Sixty Routinely Tolerated Similarly Profane Outbursts from Employees

The Second Circuit ultimately concluded that Perez’s Facebook post constituted protected activity because Pier Sixty routinely permitted vulgarities in the workplace. Notwithstanding the profane language, Perez’s post “explicitly protested” management’s mistreatment and “exhorted employees to ‘Vote YES,’” while Pier Sixty’s anti-union animus was uncontested.  Given these circumstances, “the Board could reasonably determine that Perez’s outburst was not an idiosyncratic reaction to a manager’s request but part of a tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the representation election.”  Moreover, Pier Sixty consistently tolerated “widespread profanity in the workplace,” and both management and employees used “daily obscenities” without consequence.  In the six years preceding Perez’s termination, there had only been five written warnings issued for such language and no terminations – until Perez. The Second Circuit noted that “it is striking that Perez – who had been a server at Pier Sixty for thirteen years – was fired for profanities two days before the Union election when no employee had ever before been sanctioned (much less fired) for profanity.”

The Second Circuit also found the manner in which Perez communicated his ire to be significant. Social media is a “key medium of communication among coworkers and a tool for organization in modern era,” and, despite publicly posting the message, Perez’s outburst did not occur “in the immediate presence of customers nor did it disrupt the catering event.” Thus, the Court found the post to be distinguishable from other “opprobrious conduct” cases it had considered.

Notably, although the Second Circuit deemed Perez’s post to be protected under the Act, it also cautioned, “this case seems to us to sit at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments, and any test for evaluating ‘opprobrious conduct’ must be sufficiently sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests.”

Court Questioned the Validity of the Board’s “Totality of the Circumstances” Test

In 2012, the Second Circuit, in NLRB v. Starbucks, 679 F.3d 70 (2012), concluded that the test traditionally employed by the Board to assess whether obscenities uttered in the workplace constitute protected activity – the Atlantic Steel test – did not sufficiently accommodate employers’ legitimate interest in preventing employees’ public outbursts in the presence of customers and remanded the case to the Board to develop “more balanced standards for evaluating ‘opprobrious’ conduct in that context.”  The Office of the General Counsel subsequently issued Memorandum OM 12-59, which set forth a nine-factor “totality of the circumstances” test to assess the protected nature of employees’ social media communications, which the Second Circuit characterized as “more employee-friendly.”  The Board employed this test in Pier Sixty, LLC, but the Second Circuit questioned the test’s legitimacy, stating that “we are not convinced the amorphous ‘totality of the circumstances’ test adequately balances an employer’s interests…”  Ultimately, though, because Pier Sixty did not object to it the Second Circuit applied the test – without sanctioning its validity.

Lessons Learned From Pier Sixty

This case serves as a reminder that employers must take the long view when deciding whether to discipline employees for workplace conduct that is inappropriate but not particularly offensive to the employer. Here, Perez’s posting would have likely fallen outside the bounds of protected activity had Pier Sixty disciplined employees for similar vulgarities in the workplace.  However, because Pier Sixty routinely tolerated such conduct from management and employees alike, the Second Circuit could not find that Perez’s conduct was “so egregious as to exceed the NLRA’s protection.”

This case also signals that the Second Circuit, and perhaps other courts, may be willing to abandon the Board’s “totality of the circumstances” test in favor of a standard that better protects employer’s legitimate interests in regulating employees’ workplace conduct. Employers defending cases in which the Board employs this test should vigorously argue that this standard improperly intrudes upon their legitimate business interests.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – Philip Miscimarra, Acting Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), has given a strong indication of the changes likely to come once President Trump fills vacant seats on the NLRB.

In a sharply worded dissent, Miscimarra doubled down on his disagreement with the NLRB’s controversial 2014 rule on union representation elections. Miscimarra argues that the rule’s heavy emphasis on election speed interferes with an employee’s right to make informed decisions on union representation and is inconsistent with the requirements of the statute. In another dissent, he argues that the NLRB’s current standard for reviewing employee handbook provisions “defies common sense” and should be replaced with a test balancing competing interests.

Watch the segment below and see our recent post.

On February 16, 2017, tens of thousands of individuals across the country stayed home from work as part of the “Day Without Immigrants,” a social activism campaign organized in response to President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders concerning immigration and increased enforcement, deportation actions, and raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The “Day Without Immigrants” action was apparently not coordinated by any centralized organization, but was promoted on social media and by word-of-mouth just days before.

Now, the same groups that organized the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington – an action participated in by millions of individuals across the county – has called for a “Day Without Women” to be held on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Organizers are encouraging women to participate by taking the day off from paid and unpaid labor, and by wearing red – which the organizers note “may be a great act of defiance for some uniformed workers.”

Employers should be prepared to address any difficult questions that might arise in connection with the upcoming “Day Without Women” strike: Do I have to give my employees time off to participate in Day Without events? Can I still enforce the company dress code – or do I need to permit employees to wear red? Can I discipline an employee who is “no call, no show” to work that day? Am I required to approve requests for the day off by employees who want to participate? As we explained in our prior blog post, guidance from the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel suggests that an employer can rely on its “lawful and neutrally-applied work rules” to make decisions about granting requests for time off, enforcing its dress code, and disciplining employees for attendance rule violations. An employer’s response, however, to a given employee’s request for time off or for an exception to the dress code, may vary widely based upon the individual facts and circumstances of each case.

As we previously noted, participation in events such as these may be protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”). When employees take action to “improve their lot as employees through channels outside the immediate employee-employer relationship,” that activity is protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the Act so long as it has a direct connection to the employees’ working conditions. GC Memorandum 08-10 (2008), pgs. 1, 10 (citing Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565 (1978)). There are, of course, some limitations on employees’ right to engage in concerted political activity. In GC Memo 08-10, issued in 2008, the Board’s General Counsel concluded that under existing Supreme Court and Board precedent, when employees exert economic pressure on their employer by leaving work to support a political cause, that activity may not be protected if the employer has “no control over the outcome of that dispute.” GC Memo 08-10, pg. 10.

However, even if employees’ participation in these mass demonstrations and strikes is considered protected concerted activity (as it concerns a specific issue directly connected to their work conditions and terms), an employer may still regulate that activity through its “lawful and neutrally-applied work rules.” GC Memo 08-10, pg. 13.

Similarly, an employer can rely on its lawful, uniformly-applied policies to evaluate whether to grant a request for time off to participate in Day Without Women activities – by asking, for example, whether the employee has sufficient accrued time, or has given enough advance notice, or has found someone to cover his work shift if that is ordinarily required. An employer may also apply its neutral attendance policy (which complies with all applicable leave laws, including local paid sick leave laws) to discipline an employee who simply fails to report to work without calling out.

What Employers Should Do Now

All employers should be prepared to address these issues as they arise – if not this week, then in the coming weeks and months if these types of mass protests continue. As described above, an employer’s reaction to its employees’ expressed desire to participate in these events will vary widely based on the individual circumstances at issue.

NLRB Acting Chair Philip Miscimarra has given the clearest indication to date of what steps a new Republican majority is likely to take to reverse key elements of the Labor Board’s hallmark actions of the Obama administration once President Trump nominates candidates for the Board’s two open seats and the Senate confirms. In each of these cases, Miscimarra highlighted his earlier opposition to the majority’s changes in long standing precedents and practices.

The Acting Chair’s Position On the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules – The Emphasis On “Speed Above All Else” is Inconsistent With the Law

In a strongly worded dissent in European Imports, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 41 (February 23, 2017), the Acting Chair took issue the majority’s decision to deny an Employer’s Emergency Request for Review, that sought to postpone and reschedule a representation election scheduled to take place only three days after a significant number of the employees who would be eligible to vote approximately 25%, learned that they were included in the bargaining unit, and would be affected by the outcome of the vote.

In its Emergency Request, the employer urged the Board to postpone the election by a week, to endure that the employees would know whether they would be eligible to vote and if they were, to allow them to get the facts and make an informed decision when they voted. It also argued that holding the election so soon after the issuance of the Direction of Election “would deprive many employees of sufficient notice that they would be voting in election that would dictate whether they would have union representation.”

Disagreeing with the decision of Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran to deny the employer’s Emergency Request without comment, Miscimarra took issue not only with the denial of this Request, but more broadly, with the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rule (the “Rule”) and its “preoccupation with speed between petition-filing and the election,” the Rule’s “single-minded standard” calling for “every election (to be) scheduled for ‘the earliest date practicable . . .”

Miscimarra reiterated his position, as expressed in his dissent to the Board’s adoption of the amended Election Rule in 2014, that such an emphasis on speed above all else is inconsistent with the Board’s duty under the National Labor Relations Act “to assure to employees the fullest freedom in exercising the rights guaranteed” by the Act.

The Acting Chair again called for the Board to establish “concrete parameters” for the scheduling of elections that would ensure “reasonable minimum and maximum times between the filing of a representation petition and the holding of an election.”

In addition to addressing issues of timing, Miscimarra also took issue with the fact that during the representation hearing preceding the Direction of Election. The Board’s Regional Director had refused to permit the employer to present evidence and develop a record as to why it was being prejudiced in this case by the 2014 Amended Election Rule. The Regional Director ruled that because earlier judicial challenges to the facial validity of the Election Rule had been dismissed, the employer could not litigate the actual prejudice the Rule caused in this case.

Miscimarra made clear that in his view, the fact that earlier facial challenges to the Amended Election Rule had been dismissed, questions as to the validity of the Rule, when applied to specific facts remains open and that it is a “clear error and an abuse of discretion” to deny an employer the opportunity to litigate such issues when they arise.

The Acting Chair’s Position On the Obama Board’s Handbook and E-Mail Decisions

In another dissent in Verizon Wireless Inc., 365 NLRB No. 38 (February 24, 2017)  Miscimarra reiterated his strong dispute with the way in which the Obama Board has analyzed and decided cases challenging employee handbooks and policies, writing that Board’s current standard for deciding such cases “defies common sense.”

Under the Board’s 2004 Lutheran Heritage standard, the Board will find a handbook provision or policy to violate the Act and unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights to engage in concerted, protected activity if which in part rendered work rules and handbook provisions unlawful if employees “would reasonably construe” them to prohibit protected activities under Section 7 of the Act.

The Acting Chair reiterated his view, as explained in his lengthy 2016, dissent in William Beaumont Hospital, 363 NLRB No. 162, that the Board’s current test is unworkable, and fails to adequately recognize employer’s legitimate needs of employers. Calling on the Board and the Courts to overturn and reject the Lutheran Heritage standard, Miscimarra urged the adoption in its place of a new balancing test that would not only focus on employees’ rights under the Act, but that would also take into account employers’ legitimate justifications for a particular policy or rule, such as attempting to avoid potentially fatal accidents, reduce the risk of workplace violence or prevent unlawful harassment.

Miscimarra also took direct aim in his dissent at the He also wrote that he believes the Board should overturn its Purple Communication decision allowing employee virtually unfettered use of employer email systems and return to the former standard in Register Guard, which recognized that such systems are employer property and should be recognized as such. The dissent described the standard under Purple Communications as “incorrect and unworkable,” and called for a standard that would once again recognize “the right of employers to control the uses of their own property, including their email systems, provided they do not discriminate against NLRA-protected communications by distinguishing between permitted and prohibited uses along Section 7 lines.”

What This Means for Employers

As we noted when the President appointed then Member Miscimarra to serve as Acting Chair of the Board, meaningful change in how the Board interprets and applies the Act will not come until the two vacant seats are filled and a new majority is able to act. Additionally, current General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr.’s term runs through August 4, 2017.

We expect change to come as ULP issues get before the Board. It is to be expected that any new Members appointed by the President will almost certainly share Acting Chair Miscimarra’s views on such issues as use of employer email systems and the review and enforcement of workplace rules, handbooks and the like.  A new balancing test such as that proposed in the Beaumont Hospital dissent is quite foreseeable.

Concerning the Amended Election Rule, things are a bit trickier. The Rule itself was the result of formal rule making, with public comment and input after the Board published its proposed Rule in the Federal Register.  Major changes in the Rule itself would require a new Board to follow the same processes, which are quite lengthy. However, there is certainly room, as Miscimarra’s dissent in European Imports demonstrates, for the Board to make changes in how it administers and processes cases even under this Rule, before any change to the Rule itself becomes effective.  The Acting Chair’s comments concerning the right of employers and other parties to due process, including the right to develop a complete factual record on disputed, material issues is something that can be changed through the administration and application of the Rule even without formal change.  So to, it would not be surprising for a new General Counsel to give guidance to the Board’s Regional Offices calling for them to apply their discretion to avoid circumstances like those that triggered the Emergency Request in European Imports to make sure that there are no more “three day elections.”

Periods such as this, where there is transition in interpretation and enforcement, are challenging but in reality they have been a part of the history of the enforcement and application of the Act for more than 80 years.  Students of the Board often speak of a pendulum and the need for those with business before the Board to try to anticipate its swings.  Careful consideration of not just what the “law” is now, but also what it is likely to be going forward will now once again be the watchword.

 

Steven M. Swirsky
Steven M. Swirsky

In a further incursion into the area of the gig and new age economy, the Regional Director for the National Labor Relations Board’s Los Angeles office has issued an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that it is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) for an employer to misclassify an employee as an independent contractor.

The Complaint, which is based on a charge filed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, through its’ Justice For Port Truck Drivers  campaign, asserts that Intermodal Bridge Transport (“IBT”) “has misclassified its employee drivers as independent contractors, thereby inhibiting them from engaging in Section 7 activity and depriving them of the protections of the Act. The theory behind the ULP charge and complaint is that the Act gives employees the right to unionize and engage in other protected, concerted activity, and that if an employer misclassifies a worker as an independent contractor, it unlawfully deprives the worker of those rights.

The issuance of the complaint in this case comes less than a month after the Board’s General Counsel issued General Counsel Memorandum 16-01, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, identifying the types of cases that reflected “matters that involve General Counsel initiatives and/or priority areas of the law and labor policy.”  Among the top priorities are “Cases involving the employment status of workers in the on-demand economy,” and “Cases involving the question of whether the misclassification of employees as independent contractors,” which as reflected in the IBT complaint the General Counsel contends violates Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

Clearly organized labor is using the General Counsel Memorandum as an invitation to present cases raising the issues the General Counsel is seeking to litigate.  We will continue to report as additional cases emerge from the General Counsel’s wish list of priorities and initiatives.

Last week we reported that the NLRB continues its assault on arbitration agreements in spite of judicial rejection of its holdings.  Days after our post, another federal judge disregarded the NLRB’s holdings and actually dismissed employees’ wage and hour claims because the employees failed to follow the court’s order compelling the employees to arbitration.

Specifically, on July 8, 2015, a federal judge dismissed (PDF) the original wage and hour collective action that ultimately led to the NLRB’s decision in Murphy Oil where it held that arbitration agreements containing joint, class and collective action waivers in all forums, judicial and arbitral, are unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.

The four Murphy Oil USA Inc. employees who had originally filed the collective action alleging overtime violations were ordered to arbitration by U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. of the Northern District of Alabama in 2012.  However, rather than proceed to arbitration as the Court ordered, the plaintiffs waited while one of the four pursued the action before the NLRB.  The plaintiffs undoubtedly were hoping that they would be able to avoid arbitration and proceed with their overtime claim in federal court based on the NLRB’s holding in Murphy Oil.

In February 2015, the plaintiffs filed a motion requesting Judge Smith to reconsider his decision compelling arbitration in light of the NLRB’s October 2014 ruling in Murphy Oil.  Judge Smith not only denied the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration, but he also dismissed the action altogether, leaving the plaintiffs without even the option to arbitrate their claims.

Judge Smith found the plaintiffs had willfully ignored and delayed in following the court’s order and that they had done so “for the purpose of gaining a strategic advantage” in the NLRB action.  The Judge found the plaintiffs’ argument that they would have been unable to pursue their case before the NLRB if they had proceeded to arbitration as ordered to be disingenuous.  Judge Smith noted that instead of appealing his order or requesting a stay of arbitration, the plaintiffs engaged “simply disregarded this court’s order because it required them to do something they did not want to do.”

Judge Smith stated that the plaintiffs had:

not cited any authority to support their outlandish suggestion that a federal court order is without effect if there is a related proceeding pending before the NLRB.

While not likely to dislodge the NLRB from its position and apparent collision with the Supreme Court, it is interesting that the NLRB’s position is seemingly now also putting employees, as well as employers, in situation where they face untenuous choices.   Employees now may be faced with the choice of resolving claims through their signed arbitration agreements that they have agreed to with their employers or pursuing the NLRB’s anti-arbitration position at the risk of a court throwing out their claims and losing any chance for relief on their claims.

As discussed in our previous post, the NLRB’s divergent position has already forced employers to carefully navigate between maintaining and enforcing their otherwise valid arbitration agreements and the NLRB’s aggressive condemnation of those agreements.  This District Court’s decision clearly gives employers even more to think about in deciding how to proceed given the conflicting guidance of the Courts and the NLRB.

On March 18, 2015, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. issued General Counsel Memorandum GC 15-04 containing extensive guidance as to the General Counsel’s views as to what types employer polices and rules, in handbooks and otherwise, will be considered by the NLRB investigators and regional offices to be lawful and which are likely to be found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the Act”).

This GC Memo is highly relevant to all employers in all industries that are under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, regardless of whether they have union represented employees.

Because the Office of the General Counsel investigates unfair labor practice charges and the NLRB’s Regional Directors act on behalf of the General Counsel when they determine whether a charge has legal merit, the memo is meaningful to all employers and offers important guidance as to what language and policies are likely to be found to interfere with employees’ rights under the Act, and what type of language the NLRB will find does not interfere and may be lawfully maintained, so long as it is consistently and non-discriminatorily applied and enforced.

As explained in the Memorandum, the Board’s legal standard for deciding whether an employer policy unlawfully interferes with employees’ rights under the Act is generally whether “employees would reasonably construe the rules to prohibit Section 7 activity” – that is action of a concerted nature intended to address issues with respect to employees’ terms and conditions of employment. As we have noted previously, this General Counsel and Board have consistently given these terms broad interpretations and have found many employer policies and procedures, in handbooks and elsewhere, that appear neutral and appropriate on their face, to violate the Act and interfere with employee rights.  Many of these cases have involved non-union workplaces where there is not a union present and there is no union activity in progress.

There are two sections to the Memo. Part 1 of the Memorandum, which begins at page 2 and runs to page 20, offers a recap of NLRB decisions concerning 8 broad categories of policies, with summaries of the Board’s holdings and examples of policy language that the NLRB has found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights and policy language that the Board has found did not unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights.  Section 2 reports on the General Counsel’s settlement with Wendy’s International LLC following an investigation of charges in which the General Counsel found portions of Wendy’s employee handbook unlawfully overbroad, with an explanation as to why the General Counsel found the policies in question to interfere with employees’ rights under the Act and a description of the language Wendy’s adopted to replace the problematic policies as part of its settlement of the charges. Both parts of the Memorandum will be of interest to employers and attorneys who draft, apply and enforce handbooks and other workplace policy documents.

Part 1: Examples of Handbook Rules found by the Board to be Lawful and Unlawful in recent decisions

  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Confidentiality – The Memorandum reviews the Board’s precedents holding that “Employees have a Section 7 right to discuss wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment with fellow employees, as well as nonemployees such as union representatives.” Interestingly, the Memorandum also states that “broad prohibitions on disclosing ‘confidential’ information are lawful so long as they do not reference information regarding employees or anything that would reasonably be considered a term or condition of employment, because employers have a substantial and legitimate interest in maintaining the privacy of certain business information.”  The Memorandum further “clarifies” by advising that “an otherwise unlawful confidentiality rule will be found lawful if, when viewed in context, employees would not reasonably understand the rule to prohibit Section 7 protected activity.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Employee Conduct toward the Company and Supervisors – As explained in the Memorandum, “Employees also have the Section 7 right to criticize or protest their employer’s labor policies or treatment of employees.”  The Memorandum offers an overview of decisional law, with particular attention to cases involving rules that “prohibit employees “from engaging in ‘disrespectful,’ ’negative,’ ‘inappropriate,’ or ‘rude’ conduct towards the employer or management, absent sufficient clarification or context.”  As further noted, employee criticism of the employer “will not lose the Act’s protection simply because the criticism is false or defamatory.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regulating Conduct Towards Fellow Employees – This section of the Memorandum focusses on language and policies that the Board has found to interfere with the Section 7 right employees have ‘to argue and debate with each other  about unions, management, and their terms and conditions of employment,” which the General Counsel explains the Board has held will not lose their protection under the Act, “even if it includes ‘intemperate, abusive and inaccurate statements.” Of particular interest in this portion of the Memorandum is the examination of policies concerning harassment.  The Memorandum notes that “although employers have a legitimate and substantial interest in maintaining a harassment-free workplace, anti-harassment rules cannot be so broad that employees would reasonably read them as prohibiting vigorous debate or intemperate comments regarding Section 7 protected subjects.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Employee Interaction With Third Parties – This section of the Memorandum focuses on employer policies and provisions that seek to regulate and restrict employee contact with and communications to the media relating to their employment.  The General Counsel notes that “(A)nother right employees have under Section 7 is the right to communicate with the new media, government agencies, and other third parties about wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment,” and that rules “that reasonably would be read to restrict such communications are unlawful.” The General Counsel acknowledges however that “employers may lawfully control who makes official statements for the company,” any such rules must be drafted so as “to ensure that their rules would not reasonably be read to ban employees from speaking to the media or third parties on their own (or other employees”) behalf.
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Use of Company Logos, Copyrights and Trademarks – The Board has found many employer policies, whether contained in employee handbooks or elsewhere, that broadly prohibit employees from using logos, copyrights and  trademarks to unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights.  While the General Counsel acknowledges that “copyright holders have a clear interest in protecting their intellectual property,” the Board has found, with the approval of such courts as the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, that “handbook rules cannot prohibit employees’ fair protected use of that property.”  In this regard the General Counsel states in the Memorandum that it is his office’s position that “employees have a right to use the name and logo on picket signs’ leaflets, and other protected materials,” and that “Employers’ proprietary interests are not implicated by employees’ non-commercial use of a name, logo, or other trademark to identify the employer in the course of Section 7 activity.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Photography and Recording – While many handbooks and policies prohibit or seek to restrict employees from taking photographs or making recordings in the workplace and on employer policy, the Memorandum states that “Employees have Section 7 right to photograph and make recordings in furtherance of their protected concerted activity, including the right to use personal devices to take such pictures make recordings.”  The Memorandum further notes that such policies will be found to be overbroad “where they would reasonably be read to prohibit the taking of pictures or recordings on non-work time.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Employees from Leaving Work – With respect to handbook or other policies that restrict employees from leaving the workplace or from failing to report when scheduled, the Memorandum notes that “one of the most fundamental rights employees have under Section 7 of the Act is the right to go on strike,” and therefore “rules that regulate when an employee can leave work are unlawful if employees reasonably would read them to forbid protected strike actions and walkouts.”  Not all rules concerning absences and leaving the workstations are unlawful.  A rule would be lawful if “such a rule makes no mention of ‘strikes,’ ‘walkouts,’ ‘disruptions’ or the like” since employees should “reasonably understand the rule to pertain to employees leaving their posts for reasons unrelated to protected concerted activity.”
  • Employer Conflict of Interest Rules – The Memorandum states that under Section 7 of the Act, employees have the right to engage in concerted activity to improve their terms and conditions of employment, even if that activity is in conflict with the employer’s interests.  It cites as examples of such activities that could arguably be in violation of broad conflict of interest policies as protests outside the employer’s business, organizing a boycott of the employer’s products and services and solicitation of support for a union while on non-work time.  The Memorandum notes that when a conflict of interest policy “includes examples of otherwise clarifies that it limited to legitimate business interests (note: as that term is defined by the General Counsel and the Board) employees will reasonably understand the rule to prohibit only unprotected activity.”

Part 2: The Wendy’s International LLC Handbook Cases

The second part of the Memorandum relates to the Board’s settlement of a series of unfair labor practice charges against Wendy’s International LLC (Wendy’s) alleging that various provisions of the handbook were overbroad and unlawfully interfered with employees’ rights under the NLRA.  The company entered into an “informal, bilateral Board settlement agreement.  In this section, the GC explains why various provisions were found unlawful and then sets forth negotiated replacement policies that the GC found did not violate the Act.  While not a formal “safe harbor” since this is the position of the General Counsel and not the Board, it offers very good advice for employers and attorneys in this area.  The Wendy’s policies that the General Counsel argued violated employees’ Section 7 rights and the replacements that the General Counsel found acceptable concerned the following areas:

  • Handbook Disclosure Provision – The handbook in issue contained a broad prohibition against disclosure of the handbook and the information it contained without the company’s express prior written permission.  The General Counsel found this to be unlawful because it prohibited disclosure of employment practices to third parties such as a union or the NLRB.
  • Social Media Policy – While the General Counsel acknowledged that employers have “a legitimate interest in ensuring that employee communications are not construed as representing the employer’s official position,” the General Counsel found the company’s rule to be overbroad since it prohibited a much broader range of communications that would be protected by Section 7.  This included photography and recording and no retaliation provisions.
  • Conflict of Interest Policy
  • Company Confidential Information Provision
  • Employee Conduct
  • Walking Off the Job Without Authorization
  • No Distribution/No Solicitation Provision
  • Restaurant Telephone; Cell Phone; Camera Phone/Recording Devices Provision

While Memorandum GC 15-04 arguably does not contain “new” information or changes in policy or case law, it should be useful for employers and practitioners (and employees) in that it provides a concise summary of the General Counsel’s views on this wide range of matters and examples of language that is likely to be found lawful in future proceedings.  Of course it is important to note that each charge is decided on its own facts and the actions and statements of employers and their supervisors in connection with the application and enforcement of the particular provision will almost always be relevant to the determination of whether the Board will issue a complaint on a particular ULP Charge.

By Jill Barbarino

On October 28 a three-member majority of the National Labor Relations Board in Murphy Oil U.S.A., Inc.  revisited and reaffirmed its position that employers violate the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) by requiring employees covered by the Act (virtually all nonsupervisory and non-managerial employees of most private sector employees, whether unionized or not) to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in class or collective actions.

As previously reported in an Act Now Advisory, in 2012 the NLRB held in D.R. Horton that the home builder unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 right to engage in concerted activity by requiring them to sign an arbitration agreement prohibiting class or collective claims in any judicial or arbitral forum.  As we have also previously reported, however, on December 3, 2013, the Fifth Circuit rejected the NLRB’s position and held that the Act does not prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign class or collective action waivers.  The Second Circuit and the Eighth Circuit have likewise rejected the Board’s position.

Notwithstanding having “no illusions” that the Board’s decision would be the “last word on the subject”, in a 59-page decision, it reiterated and endorsed its prior position and addressed its critics head on, including the two lengthy dissents from Members Harry Johnson and Philip Miscimarra.

The Decision

Murphy Oil is the owner and operator of over 1,000 retail fueling stations.  Prior to March 6, 2012, Murphy Oil required all job applicants and current employees to execute a “Binding Arbitration Agreement and Waiver of Jury Trial,” which provided in pertinent part that all disputes related to an individual’s employment shall be resolved by binding arbitration and that the parties to the agreement “waive their right to commence or be a party to any group, class or collective action claim in arbitration or any other forum.”  The Charging Party, Sheila Hobson, signed this Agreement when she applied for employment in 2008.  Two years later, Hobson filed a collective action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging that Murphy Oil failed to pay her and others for work-related activities performed off the clock.  Murphy Oil moved to compel arbitration and to dismiss the FLSA claims based on the plaintiffs having signed the Agreement.  Hobson, thereafter, filed an unfair labor practice charge and the NLRB’s General Counsel issued a complaint, alleging that Murphy Oil had violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

At the heart of the dispute between the Board and its critics is the interpretation of Section 7 and 8(a)(1) of the Act as well as the application of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and Supreme Court jurisprudence interpreting same.

Section 8(a)(1) of the Act states that it “shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.  Section 7 of the Act states that employees shall have the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection[.]”  

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S.Ct. 665, 673 (2012), held that where there is no specific “contrary congressional command” as to whether a claim can be arbitrated, the FAA “requires the arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms.”   The CompuCredit decision, however, only addressed the enforcement of an arbitration clause that barred access to courts, not a waiver of class or collection actions.  Moreover, the CompuCredit decision was not an employment-related dispute and did not involve the NLRA.  Thus, the specific issue at play in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil remains unaddressed by the Supreme Court.

The Board’s rationale for upholding D.R. Horton is as follows:

(1)   Section 7 of the Act grants employees the  substantive right to act “concertedly for mutual aid or protection” and mandatory arbitration agreements that bar an employee’s ability to bring join, class, or collective workplace claims restrict this substantive right.

(2)   The conclusion that mandatory class action waivers are unlawful under the Act does not conflict with the FAA or its underlying policies because:

(a)    such a finding treats arbitration agreements no less favorably than any other private contract that conflicts with federal law;

(b)   Section 7 rights are substantive, which means that they cannot be waived under the FAA like procedural rights found in other statutes;

(c)    the “savings clause” in the FAA affirmatively provides that an arbitration agreement’s conflict with federal law is grounds for invalidating an agreement;

(d)   if there is a direct conflict between the NLRA and the FAA, the Norris-LaGuardia Act – which prevents private agreements that are inconsistent with the statutory policy of protecting employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity – requires the FAA to yield to the NLRA as necessary to accommodate Section 7 rights.

The Board criticized the Fifth Circuit’s decision for, among other things, giving too little weight to the “crucial point” that “the Board, like the courts, must carefully accommodate both the NLRA and the FAA” and not treat the FAA and its policies as “sweeping far more broadly than the statute or the Supreme Court’s decisions warrant.”

As to Member Johnson’s argument in his dissent that “there was no such thing as a class or collective action in any modern sense when the Act was passed in 1935” the Board majority found this point to be irrelevant because the language of “Section 7 is general and broad.”  As an example, the Board stated that the pursuit of unionization is “obviously protected” through the use of “modern communication technologies such as social media . . . regardless of whether workers during the Depression had access to Facebook.”

The Board also stated that contrary to the suggestion in Member Miscimarra’s dissent, it has not taken the position that the Act creates a guarantee to class certification or the equivalent; it does, however, create a right to “pursue joint, class or collective claims if and as available, without the interference of an employer-imposed restraint.”

What Does This Mean for Employers

After Murphy Oil, it is clear that the Board’s position and the position of at least some federal courts on this issue remain at odds.  If employers require employees covered by the Act to sign class action waivers, they should be aware that it could take significant time and money to ultimately have such an agreement upheld in federal court.  Clearly the last word on this issue will come only when the Supreme Court, as it is likely to do, considers the issue.  Until then employers that require such waivers should recognize that challenges through unfair labor practice charges will remain a fact of life.

By Steven M. Swirsky and Adam C. Abrahms

The Regional Director for the NLRB’s Chicago Region has found that football players at Northwestern University who receive scholarships are “employees” for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act.  Some of the football players blindsided the University, NCAA and college athletics by filing a petition to be represented by the College Athlete Players Association (CAPA), a putative union funded and supported by the United Steelworkers union. As only “employees” are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, finding them to be employees was necessary before the a representation vote could be held.

The Decision, while finding walk-ones and non-scholarship players not to be employees, found the University to be the common law  employer of team members who are on scholarship and have eligibility remaining are able to vote in an NLRB election to decide whether they want the CAPA  to be their bargaining representative and represent them with in collective bargaining with the University.  The parties’ post-hearing briefs, summarizing the facts and law each side argues are available.

The decision has the potential to totally upend college sports at private colleges and universities across the country.  While the Regional Director’s decision is an important step in the legal process it is by no means the last word on the issue, The University will almost certainly request review of the decision by the NLRB in Washington, DC.

If the Board agrees with the Regional Director, the vote takes place and CAPA wins the election and is certified as the players’ bargaining agent, Northwestern would be able to have the ruling considered by the US Court of Appeals by refusing to bargain. The Court, and this could be either the Seventh Circuit in Chicago of the DC Circuit in Washington, would review the law and the facts and decide whether the NLRB was right or wrong in finding that the relationship between the student-athletes and their university is an employment relationship or not.

Either way the consequence are not limited to either football or the National Labor Relations Act.  If team members are held to be employees for purposes of this law, the ball has been teed up as well as to whether they should also be considered employees for purposes of wage and hour laws, workers compensation law, benefits plans and a list as long as a football field.

An important takeaway from this case and the union’s efforts at Northwestern is that not only is labor more than willing to give it the old college try by throwing out the existing playbooks, but that it is looking at groups who employers have long taken for granted as being either unable or unwilling to organize.