On June 7, 2017, in RHCG Safety Corp. and Construction & General Building Laborers, Local 79, LIUNA, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) rejected an employer’s contention that “a text message cannot be found to constitute an unlawful interrogation” and found that a coercive text message, just like a coercive face-to-face meeting or a coercive phone call, could serve as evidence that the employer had unlawfully threatened or interrogated employees concerning their union support or activity in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”),  and thus could support a finding that the employer committed an unfair labor practice (“ULP”).  The Board noted that the employer had offered “no reason why the Board should provide a safe harbor for coercive employer messages via text messages.”

The Act’s Protection of Employee Activity

The Act provides all employees with the right to engage or refrain from engaging in protected, concerted activity, that is activity concerning their terms and conditions of employment, including but not limited to the right to join and be represented by unions and to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. It is well established that these rights, which are provided for in Section 7 of the Act, protect and apply to employees in both unionized and non-union settings.  The Act prohibits both employers and unions from engaging in conduct that interferes with employees in their exercise of their Section 7 rights.  Under Section 8(a)(1) of the Act, it is an ULP for an employer or its agents to restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.  For example, it is unlawful for an employer to interrogate an employee about his or her support for a union or that of other employees.  It is a violation of Section 8(a)(3) of the Act for an employer to terminate, discipline or otherwise take action against an employee because of his or her exercise of Section 7 rights.

The case in question arose in the context of a union organizing campaign by Laborers Union Local 79 among employees of RHCG Safety Corp. (also known as Redhook Construction Group). The union had petitioned the NLRB for a representation election, in which employees were to vote on whether they wanted Local 79 to become their bargaining representative. During the campaign, an employee texted his supervisor, to inquire about returning to work after an approved leave of absence. The supervisor replied by text, “U working for Redhook or u working in the union?” According to the unanimous Board decision, in which Chairman Miscimarra joined with Members Pearce and McFerran, an employee would understand the supervisor’s message to strongly suggest that working for Redhook was incompatible with supporting or working in the union.  The Board therefore agreed with the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who had conducted the ULP hearing, that the text message constituted an unlawful interrogation and violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

In its exceptions to the ALJ’s decision Redhook argued to the Board that a text message could not constitute an unlawful interrogation, but according to the Board’s decision, Redhook failed to offer any reason to support its position that a text message could not support a finding of an unlawful interrogation.  The Board rejected Redhook’s contention, finding “an unlawful interrogation need not be face-to-face.”   The Board also rejected the argument that the text message at issue was inadmissible at the ULP hearing because the screenshot of the text offered by Counsel for the General Counsel did not include the entire communication between the employee and his supervisor.  The Board reasoned that the Federal Rules of Evidence permit introduction of only a part of a writing, and there was nothing in the record to suggest the text message at issue was incomplete or that the “missing” text messages could have negated the coercive nature of the “are-you-for-the union” inquiry.

What Should Employers Do Now?

The Board’s decision highlights the need for employers to carefully consider how to communicate with employees in the ordinary course of business and during an organizing campaign. Given the issues workplace texting presents for employers, it is advisable for employers to review their communication policies to make clear what methods of communication are allowed in the workplace.  Employers should also review their record retention policies to make sure that all permissible mediums of communication are covered by the policy.  Texting is a casual form of communication. To the extent employers permit text messaging among employees, it may also be necessary for employers to remind employees that text messages are workplace conversations, and the dos and don’ts applicable to face-to-face meetings and telephone calls apply equally to text messages.  Employers should also pay even greater attention to all forms of communications, both formal and informal, and by the company as well as by supervisors and managers whose actions and statements can be attributed to the employer, in the presence of organizing or other union activity.

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.

 

One of the questions asked of NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. following his presentation at this week’s meeting of the Committee on Developments Under the National Labor Relations Act of the American Bar Association was whether the National Labor Relations Board will follow the EEOC’s lead and adopt a practice of turning employers’ position statements in ULP investigations over to the unions and individuals who have filed the charges.

While his carefully phrased response was that the General Counsel’s office has not made such a decision at this time, most of those in the room took his answer to mean that this is probably going to become the Board’s practice as well in the near future.  Given the increased use of investigative subpoenas by the Board, this means that more and more employer records and documents are likely to be given to unions filing charges.  We will continue to monitor and report.

By Adam C. Abrahms and Steven M. Swirsky

In another major defeat for President Obama’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found that the Board lacked the authority to issue a 2011 rule which would have required all employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), including those whose employees are not unionized,  to post a workplace notice to employees. The putative Notice, called a “Notification of Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act,” is intended to ostensibly inform employees of their rights to join and be represented by unions and to engage in other activity protected by the Act. The rule would also have made it an unfair labor practice for an employer to fail to post the required notice and such failure also could be considered proof of anti-union animus in other Board proceedings.

Although proposed in 2011 and scheduled to become effective on April 30, 2012, the requirement has yet been put into effect. As we discussed previously, last year, the US District Court for the District of Columbia had held that the Board lacked the authority to make it an unfair labor practice for an employer to fail to post the notice, holding that this exceeded the Board’s authority under the Act. Just prior to the rule going into effect, the DC Court of Appeals issued an emergency injunction in support of the District Court’s opinion and the NLRB opted to not enforce the rule pending the appeal.

Perhaps what is most noteworthy about the Court’s recent opinion, authored by Senior Circuit Judge Randolph, is the Court’s reliance on employers’ free speech rights which are protected by Section 8(c) of the Act. That section of the Act ensures employers  the right  to communicate their views concerning unions to their employees. The Court noted that while Section 8(c) “precludes the Board from finding non coercive employer speech to be an unfair labor practice, or evidence of an unfair labor practice, the Board’s rule does both.” That is because under the rule an employer’s failure to post the required notice would constitute an unfair labor practice and the Board’s rule would have allowed the Board to “consider an employer’s ‘knowing and willful’ noncompliance to be ‘evidence of anti union animus in cases in which unlawful motive [is] an element of an unfair labor practice.”

The Court focused on the question of the right of employers to “free speech,” under both Section 8(c) of the Act and under the First Amendment to the Constitution, noting that the rule would have required employers to disseminate information and that “the right to disseminate another’s speech necessarily includes the right to decide not to disseminate it,” relying on analysis from prior Supreme Court and appellate court decisions which it referred to as “compelled speech” cases.

Interestingly, the Court’s conclusion that the Board’s rule violates Section 8(c) because it makes an employer’s failure to post the Board’s notice an unfair labor practice, and because it treats such a failure as evidence of anti-union animus, suggests the Board might be able to find an alternate route to a notice posting requirement if it did not seek to create such a remedy for an employer’s failure to post the notice.  However, the Court refused to leave the portion of the Board’s rule requiring the Notice posting in effect even without the enforcement and remedial provisions, because they were an inherent part  of the Board’s purpose in adopting the rule.  For now the beleaguered Board will need to decide whether it wishes to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, attempt to craft  a new rule with the currently constituted Board that this same Court of Appeals has ruled was unconstitutionally appointed in its Noel Canning decision or postpone any action until a new Board is confirmed by the Senate.

Seemingly ignoring the requirements for employers to keep a harassment free workplace and disregarding their right to keep a respectful and orderly environment, last week in Fresenius USA Manufacturing, Inc. the NLRB found that the company committed an unfair labor practice by terminating an employee who admitted to using vulgar and threatening language.

Overturning an administrative law judge’s decision, the NLRB ordered Fresenius to reinstate the pro-union employee who referred to the employees leading a union decertification effort as “Pussies” and threatened that those employees should “RIP”.

Specifically, the Teamsters Local 445 represented two units ( a drivers unit and a warehouse unit) at Fresenius’ Chester, New York facilities.  Two weeks before a scheduled decertification vote to remove the union from the warehouse unit, the pro-union employee anonymously wrote on posted union newsletters:

Dear Pussies, Please Read

and

Warehouse Workers, RIP

 Employee Complaints Lead To An Investigation

Female employees complained the inappropriate statements were “vulgar, offensive and threatening.”  During the company’s investigation the employee denied his involvement, however, after lying to the Company, he accidently called a company representative (thinking he was calling the union) and admitted he was the author of the statements.  The company then fired the employee both for his inappropriate statements and for lying during a company investigation.

Board Says Company Can Investigate But Not Fire

The Board recognized the employer’s investigation was in furtherance of a legitimate business interest and also in accordance with its obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Notwithstanding these legitimate interests, the Board majority contorted facts and precedent to rule that the results of that investigation were unlawful.

Although the finding that the investigation was proper was unanimous, a split Board found that because protected activity was at the core of the inappropriate statements which, in the Board’s view, were not so egregious as to lose the protection of the Act, the termination constituted an unfair labor practice.  In a footnote the majority also found that employees have a Section 7 right to lie during an investigation and therefore the company could not terminate the employee for failing to cooperate in the investigation.

A Firm Dissent

Member Brian Hayes strongly dissented noting:

[M]y colleagues thereby impermissibly fetter the ability of employers to comply with the requirements of other labor laws and to maintain civility and order in their workplace by maintaining and enforcing rules nondiscriminatorily prohibiting abusive and profane language, sexual harassment, and verbal, mental, and physical abuse.

 Hayes succinctly chronicled the issues he found in the majority’s decision:

 I specifically dispute their implication that greater latitude must be accorded to misconduct occurring in the course of organizational activity than for other Section 7 activity, that profanity in the course of labor relations is the presumptive and permissible norm in any workplace, that remarks by one employee to another which would be unprotected on the shop floor should be protected if made in the breakroom, that comments which coworkers reasonably view as harassing and sexually insulting are not disruptive of productivity, and that threatening speech alone cannot warrant loss of statutory protection. Taken as a whole, these pronouncements confer on employees engaged in Section 7 activity a degree of insulation from discipline for misconduct that the Act neither requires nor warrants.

Finally, he warned of the future ramifications of the decision, cautioning, “Predictably, we will see these pronouncements unloosed from their factual foundation and applied broadly in future cases.

A Trend Developing

The Board’s decision is the second recent occasion where the NLRB has seemingly elevated employee rights under Section 7 of the Act above the rights of other employees to be free from harassment and employers’ obligations under Title VII and similar laws to provide a harassment free work environment.  As previously discussed, earlier this summer the Board found that standard practices of confidentiality during a harassment investigation could violate the Act.  Arguably these decisions could be seen as an invitation for employees to wrap their inappropriate statements or actions in the protective cloak of the National Labor Relations Act, putting employers in the middle of two potentially conflict legal obligations.

Management Missive

  • Management should recognize the current Board may find discipline against employees who engage in Section 7 activity unlawful even where that discipline is consistent with non-discriminatory policies or in accordance of other obligations.
  • Management should remember that when overt protected activity is involved, the standard analysis of whether the employer would take action notwithstanding the protected nature of the activity (i.e. is the action consistent) is not the appropriate inquiry; rather the appropriate analysis is whether the employee’s conduct is so egregious that is loses the protection of the Act.  In other words if an employee violates a work rule as part of their protected activity the Board’s default position is that they cannot be disciplined unless their violation of that rule was to a degree that outweighs the interest in protecting Section 7 activity.
  • Management may be forced to weigh the potential liability for not adequately responding to harassment/discrimination complaints with the potential liability under the Act for disciplining employees who protected activity also may constitute harassment.

Over the past year the NLRB has issued a series of decisions which, taken together, mark a dramatic shift in the property rights of employers and expand the right of employees seeking to use their employer’s property to organize.

Two decades ago, in Lechmere, Inc. v. NLRB, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers had a right to limit or deny non-employee union organizers access to their property provided the denial was nondiscriminatory and consistent with state law.  For almost four decades, following its decision in Tri-County Medical Center, Inc., the NLRB has maintained that an employer could prohibit their own employees off-duty access to the working areas of its property, again provided it did so non-discriminatorily.   In a series of decisions the Board has significantly limited these employer rights.

First in New York New York LLC dba New York Hotel & Casino, the Board granted a right to the employees of a contractor/restaurant to access and use the property of the landowner/casino to try to organize the contractor’s employees.  In so doing the Board removed the ability of employers who have on-site contractors to exercise their state property rights and limit off-duty access of the contractors’ employees.

More recently, in Saint John’s Health Center and Sodexo America LLC, the Board has essentially rendered meaningless the provisions of Tri-County Medical Center enabling employers to prohibit off-duty access of employees to working areas.  In both cases the employers had policies prohibiting off-duty access with the exception of attending employer “sponsored events” or for employer-related business.  The Board ruled that because those employers allowed employees to come on to the employers’ premises to attend events as determined by management they did not fall within the Tri-County rule.  However, as the dissent pointed out in both cases, the Board’s new position in essence means that an employer cannot allow an off-duty employee to come on its property to attend a retirement party, pick up a check or fill out employment related paperwork (i.e. vacation or leave request) without also allowing the employee off-duty access to engage in union organizing.

Management Missive

  • Management should review its policies and practice on providing off-duty employees access, ensuring that any exceptions are both narrowly tailored and specific.
  • Like all such policies, Management should make sure that any rules it wishes to have are promulgated prior to any evidence of union activity, recognizing that once organizing activity begins they likely will not be able to adopt any new rules.
  • Management must ensure that any off-duty access rules are clearly articulated and uniformly enforced.
  • Management should seek counsel’s advice prior to disciplining any employees for violating \an off-duty access rule.