Employees’ free choice and their right to a secret-ballot election on union membership are potentially at risk, given the latest development from the Office of the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”). On April 11, 2022, the NLRB’s General Counsel filed a brief urging a change in long-standing precedent, demanding that the Board force employers to recognize unions as the representative of their employees without first allowing employees the opportunity to cast their votes on union membership in a secret-ballot election held by the Board. The only real requirement for this dramatic result is that the union present signed authorization cards from a majority of the employees that ostensibly confirm the employees’ desire to be represented by the union and that the employer decline recognition of the union without a good faith doubt as to the union’s majority. This brief is General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo’s first major move to follow through on her previously stated goal of restoring this standard—known as the Joy Silk doctrine—which was abandoned more than 50 years ago.
On April 7, 2022, Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”), issued Memorandum GC 22-04, titled “The Right to Refrain from Captive Audience and other Mandatory Meetings” (“GC Memo”). It is no secret that the General Counsel has been an advocate for policies and practices that would increase union representation and make it easier for unions to gain recognition and win votes on representation. This includes restricting steps employers can take to share their views with employees. Such a step that the GC Memo calls for is a series of restrictions on what have been called “captive audience speeches,” that is, meetings on company time where employers present their views.
The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) recently sought public comments on the continued use of videoconference technology to conduct hearings. The co-chairs of Epstein Becker Green’s Labor Management Relations Practice submitted the attached comment arguing against continuing remote hearings because they are less efficient, credible, austere and probative and deprive all parties of due process. Not surprisingly, the NLRB Division of Judges also submitted comments confirming the inadequacies of remote hearings.
For additional information, continue reading Epstein Becker Green’s comment.
As explained in greater detail by our colleague Stuart M. Gerson, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down two major, and quickly decided, rulings on January 13, 2022. After hearing oral arguments only six days earlier, the Court issued two unsigned decisions per curiam. A 5-4 decision in Biden v. Missouri dissolved a preliminary injunction against enforcement of an interim final rule (“Rule”) promulgated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), requiring recipients of federal Medicare and Medicaid funding to ensure that their employees are vaccinated against COVID-19.
But the Biden administration’s effort to promote universal vaccination with a more sweeping rule—an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and directed at all U.S. employers with at least 100 employees—was blocked by the high court. A 6-3 decision reversed the action taken by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in December, and reimposed a stay of the ETS, meaning that OSHA may not enforce the mandate pending the outcome of further litigation.
On December 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an update to its isolation and quarantine guidance. Although the CDC’s update shortens both the isolation and quarantine periods, as described more fully below, the changes largely affect only asymptomatic individuals. Moreover, because local guidance may differ from the CDC’s recommendations, employers should keep in mind all applicable state and local requirements when deciding whether to amend their own rules.
Last week, as widely reported, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to Protect Workers from the COVID-19 (see full details in our Insight). Currently the subject of much pending litigation including a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and thus, for the time being, in limbo, the ETS is nonetheless a set of federal regulations that, unless overturned, applies to a large proportion of U.S. employers with 100 or more workers and requires those employers to either: (a) mandate that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or (b) have a policy allowing unvaccinated employees to continue working, so long as they test for the virus at least weekly and wear masks in shared workspaces. With a relatively short timeframe for compliance, the ETS has raised questions from those at both sides of the labor relations table, leading the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to issue an Operations-Management Memo (OM 22-03 or “the Memo”) on November 10, 2021 explaining its position on the duty to bargain over these matters.
The Memo, issued by the NLRB’s Acting Associate Counsel Joan A. Sullivan, advises that the NLRB General Counsel takes the position that an employer’s decision whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all or to instead permit the weekly testing/masking option as an alternative is subject to a duty to bargain. The Board’s General Counsel reasons that, although an employer is generally relieved of the duty to bargain when a specific change in terms and conditions of employment is mandated by government action, the ETS provides employers with certain discretion. Citing prior NLRB decisions, the Memo asserts that, in circumstances where an employer is granted “significant flexibility and latitude” in its implementation of regulatory requirements, an employer may be subject to an obligation to bargain with its employees’ representative.
Accordingly, the NLRB’s General Counsel takes the position that employers subject to the ETS would be obligated, if requested to do so, to bargain with labor unions representing their employees over whether they will afford their employees the “vaccination or test/mask” option described in the ETS and its regulations.
The Memo also notes that the effects of such decisions and an employer’s compliance with the ETS remain subject to bargaining, and that implementation of such decisions prior to either a collectively negotiated agreement or a valid impasse may not be permissible, depending on the circumstances.
Keep in mind that the ETS does not cover every single unionized U.S. employer with 100 or more workers. In fact, it expressly excludes all health care employers covered by the Health Care ETS issued in June 2021 as well as all workers covered by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force Guidance for Federal Contractors and Subcontractors subject to President Biden’s Executive Order requiring vaccination. Neither that Order nor the vaccine mandate for federal workers provide for a testing-in-lieu-of-vaccination option. Thus, while they appear to lack the requisite “flexibility and latitude” that would, according to the NLRB General Counsel’s position, trigger an employer’s duty to bargain over the decision to comply with the federal directives, employers subject to the Health Care ETS and the Guidance applicable to federal contractors will still have to bargain over the effects of compliance.
On August 12, 2021, Jennifer A. Abruzzo issued her first memorandum as newly sworn National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) General Counsel. The memo, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, Memorandum GC 21-04 (“GC Memo 21-04”), serves as a road map of the new General Counsel’s plans and her intent to depart from the priorities of her predecessor, Peter Robb, and to target cases and initiatives from the Trump Board that overruled the precedent from the Obama Board. As we have previously reported, President Biden, on the day of his inauguration, took the unprecedented step of firing Mr. Robb from the General Counsel position, a clear indicator of his intention for a significant change in direction for the NLRB to a more union-friendly agenda.
On August 19, 2021, one week after setting forth her pro-union agenda, the General Counsel issued a second memo, Utilization of Section 10(j) Proceedings (“10(j) Utilization Memo”), stating her intention to “aggressively seek” federal court interim injunction relief under Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”) to help give teeth to her enforcement priorities. Section 10(j) of the Act authorizes the NLRB to seek temporary injunctions against employers and unions in federal district courts to stop unfair labor practices (“ULPs”) while the ULP allegations are being litigated before administrative law judges and the Board.
GC Memo 21-04 consists of three distinct sections, each addressing a separate aspect of the General Counsel’s priorities and instructions to the NLRB’s Regional Directors and staff. The first section identifies 11 categories of cases in which the General Counsel seeks to present a new Democratic majority Board with the opportunity to reverse recent Trump-era holdings. The second section identifies other initiatives and areas that, while not necessarily the subject of a more recent Board decision, are nevertheless ones the General Counsel would like to carefully “examine.” The third section identifies other case handling and related issues that the agency’s Regional Offices have traditionally submitted to the Division of Advice for guidance.
In these issuances, the new General Counsel has identified at least 40 Board decisions and principles that she would like to “carefully examine” and undo. The General Counsel cautions readers in a footnote that more changes will come: “[T]here are many important cases and issues not included in this initial memo; I fully expect that this memo will be supplemented at some point in the future to include other important issues, as well as refinements.”
The 10(j) Utilization Memo, calling for more aggressive use of what has been considered to be a tool for use in extraordinary matters, is likely to be but the first in what is expected to be an aggressive agenda by the new General Counsel.
Cases Involving Board Doctrinal Shifts
In the first section of GC Memo 21-04, the General Counsel identifies 11 broad categories of Board cases, which are referred to as “doctrinal shifts,” where the Trump Board “overrul[ed] many legal precedents which struck an appropriate balance between the rights of workers and the obligations of unions and employers.” Those topics targeted for review include the following:
- Employers Should Expect More Restrictive Employee Handbook Rules. The Board’s 2017 decision on employer policies and handbooks in The Boeing Company balanced an employer’s business justifications for a work rule with its effect on employees’ rights under the Act. The General Counsel is seeking to review that test and return to the Obama Board standard set out in Lutheran Heritage, where the Board determined that facially neutral work rules and policies would be deemed unlawful if the Board concluded that an employee could reasonably read the rule to prohibit or limit the exercise of their rights under Section 7 the NLRA. In GC Memo 21-04, the General Counsel specifically targets a wide array of common workplace rules that include, but are not limited to, rules concerning confidentiality, non-disparagement, media communications, and social media; civility rules; respectful and professional manner rules; offensive language rules; and rules restricting employee photography in the workplace.
- Employers Should Expect More Restrictions Concerning Confidentiality Provisions in Separation Agreements. According to GC Memo 21-04, separation agreements that contain confidentiality requirements and/or non-disparagement clauses and confidentiality rules governing workplace investigations are now subject to reexamination. Confidentiality in workplace examinations in particular is a concern in sexual harassment cases, and the new General Counsel’s position is at odds with the EEOC and common sense practices that encourage employers to maintain confidentiality in workplace investigations.
- The General Counsel Will Pursue a Broader Definition of “Protected Concerted Activity.” Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” as well as the right “to refrain from any or all such activities.” Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, in turn, makes it a ULP for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the Act. Activity is “concerted” if it is engaged in with or on the authority of other employees, including where a single employee seeks to initiate group action or brings a group complaint to the attention of management. The General Counsel seeks to expand what the Board considers protected concerted activity and appears to have adopted the controversial March 31, 2021, memo issued by then-Acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr, whom Ms. Abruzzi has appointed as her Associate General Counsel. During his brief tenure as Acting General Counsel, Ohr also revoked 10 memos issued by former General Counsel Robb. The March 31 Ohr memo, which we previously blogged about, argued for an expansive broadening of the types of activities to be protected as “protected concerted activity” under Section 7 of the NLRA to include a wide host of political advocacy and social justice issues that may have, at most, an attenuated connection to employees’ workplace issues. The initiatives and changes of direction now outlined in GC Memo 21-04 and the 10(j) Utilization Memo build upon those initiatives.
- The General Counsel Will Pursue Greater Employee Rights to Use Workplace Email and Communications Systems. The General Counsel also seeks to review cases involving employees’ use of employer-sponsored e-mail and other electronic platforms in the workplace systems to require employers to open up their systems to union organizing and employee communications. Additionally, the General Counsel wants to make it harder for employers to restrict employee conversations about unions while working. While the rules governing what is permissible employee solicitation on behalf of unions is generally well established, the General Counsel seeks to reexamine Board cases involving the distinction between what is considered union “solicitation”—e.g., convincing co-workers to sign union authorization cards—and “mere union talk,” which should not be distinguished from other permissible employee conversations while working.
- The General Counsel Will Seek to Ease the Wright Line/General Counsel’s Burden in ULP Litigation. In cases where an employer’s motivation for an employee’s discipline or discharge is at issue, the Board utilizes its long-established test under Wright Line. Under Wright Line, in a ULP hearing, the NLRB’s General Counsel must initially show that an employer imposed discipline or otherwise took an adverse action against an employee because of their Section 7 activity. If that threshold is met, an employer can defend its actions by showing that it would have taken the same action even in the absence of the Section 7 activity. In Tschiggfrie Properties, Ltd., the Board held that the General Counsel must show a connection or line between the employer’s alleged animus and the discipline involved. The General Counsel has now announced her intention to ask the Board to reexamine Tschiggfrie and replace it with a new standard that would make it easier for the General Counsel to prove anti-union animus and pretext and more difficult for employers to defend against such claims.
- The General Counsel Will Pursue Less Restriction on Abusive Language and Conduct. The General Counsel has also now announced her intention to ask the Board to reexamine its decision in General Motors LLC, 369 NLRB No. 127 (2020), which rejected the notion that abusive language must be tolerated in furtherance of Section 7 rights. The Obama Board previously allowed employees substantial leeway and protected so-called intemperate employee outbursts and other abusive conduct if they occurred in the context of an employee exercising their Section 7 rights, such as during a strike or on a picket line.
- The General Counsel Intends to Seek Greater Remedial Authority in ULP Cases. Another area where the new General Counsel seeks to makes changes concerns the settlement of ULP charge complaints. GC Memo 21-04 indicates employers may no longer be able to settle Board cases where the employee is willing to waive reinstatement in exchange for a cash settlement.
- The General Counsel Will Pursue Greater Union Access to Employer Property for Unions. The General Counsel proposes to expand the access rights of outside unions to an employer’s private property for organizing and other purposes. For example, employers that permit nonprofit groups, such as Girl Scouts selling cookies on their property, would no longer be exclude non-employee union organizers from their property.
- The General Counsel Will Seek to Reduce Management Rights When Contracts Expire. Under long-standing Board precedent, dues check off are solely a creature of a union contract, meaning that once a collective bargaining agreement has expired, typically while an employer and union are negotiating a new contract or an extensions, employers have the legal right to cease withholding dues from employees’ paychecks and remitting them to the union. This right can be a powerful tool for an employer seeking to negotiate terms. GC Memo 21-04 indicates that the new General Counsel will seek an appropriate case to present to the Board to ask it to reverse this and to hold that an employer must continue to withhold and remit dues even after a contract has expired. This is just one of a number of ways in which the General Counsel will seek to shift the balance in collective bargaining in favor of unions.
- The General Counsel Will Seek a Broader Definition of Employee Status. Independent contractors are in the General Counsel’s crosshairs. GC Memo 21-04 indicates that the General Counsel will ask the Board to adopt a new definition of independent contractor that would result in many workers who are now not considered employees for purposes of the Act to be deemed employees. Notably, during the Obama administration, the General Counsel’s office argued that classification of a worker who it believed to be an “employee” as an independent contractor was itself a ULP.
- The General Counsel Will Seek to Exercise Broader Jurisdiction Over Religious Institutions as Employers. The General Counsel intends to seek to review and expand instances where religious institutions are subject to NLRB jurisdiction. Under existing precedents, the Board has long held that such institutions are not employers for purposes of the Act and their employees are not entitled to the Act’s protections.
- The General Counsel Plans to Seek to Expand Employer Duty to Recognize and/or Bargain with Unions. The General Counsel broadly wants to examine a host of Board cases addressing the duty to recognize and bargain with a labor union. Specifically, the General Counsel plans to examine whether an employer (i) is permitted to act unilaterally concerning matters that fall within the compass or scope of a management rights clause, or other contract provision; (ii) can withdraw recognition from a union when a majority of employees no longer desire representation; (iii) has taken an action consistent with a management rights clause after a collective bargaining agreement has expired; (iv) has claimed an “inability to pay,” thus triggering an obligation to provide the union with access to the employer’s financial records; (v) is required to make increased contributions to medical and other benefits funds after a collective bargaining agreement has expired; (vi) is required to bargain over disciplinary action against newly represented employees before a collective bargaining agreement has been negotiated; (vii) refuses to provide the union with information related to customer complaints. The General Counsel also seeks to review when to impose the affirmative remedy of a bargaining order as a remedy for ULPs where a union has not won a representation election.
- The General Counsel Intends to Cut Back on Deferral to Arbitration. The General Counsel seeks to make it harder to defer to the arbitration process where the case involves an alleged ULP.
Other Areas and Initiatives
In addition to targeting the specific areas outlined above, the new General Counsel has indicated in the second section of GC Memo 21-04 that the areas listed below, while not necessarily the subject of a more recent Board decision, are nevertheless ones that she plans to “carefully examine.”
- Misclassification as an Independent Contractor as a ULP and Other Issues Concerning Employee Status: Cases addressing whether (i) employer misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor, standing alone, violates the Act; (ii) individuals with disabilities working in a rehabilitative setting are deemed employees; and (iii) union “salts” are employees because they are not truly interested in working for the employer.
- An Expansion of “Weingarten Rights” to Unrepresented Employees: The issue of whether “Weingarten Rights” applies in a non-union setting has significant implications for employers because it allows employees who are subject to discipline to introduce a union to an employer setting employer where the employees have not elected to have a union represent them for collective bargaining. The General Counsel also wants to review and extend the union’s right to obtain a pre-interview right to review information pertaining to a subsequent interview.
- National Mediation Board vs. NLRB Jurisdiction: The General Counsel wants to reexamine the jurisdictional standards and coverage between the NLRB and the National Mediation Board, which has jurisdiction over the airline and railroad industries;
- Employer Duty to Recognize and Bargain with a Union: The General Counsel has indicated an intent to target cases in which employers are alleged to have engaged in “surface bargaining” and/or a refusal to furnish information in the context of a plant relocation under Dubuque Packing, and overturning Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., which permits mid-term withdrawals of recognition after the third-year of a contract.
- Employees’ Section 7 Rights to Strike and/or Picket: The General Counsel’s has her sights on limiting (i) an employer’s right to permanently replace economic strikers, (ii) what the Board considers an illegal intermittent strike, (iii) what is considered a strike with an unlawful secondary object, and (iv) an employer’s right to unilaterally set terms and conditions for strike replacements.
- Remedies and Compliance: The General Counsel has indicated that she will seek greater relief for employees terminated or disciplined in cases involving construction industry applicants and union salts, i.e., union employees who take jobs with the intent of “organizing from within” an employer’s workforce, by limiting such discriminatees’ obligation to conduct an “adequate search” for interim employment.
- Employer Interference with Employee’s Rights: The General Counsel has indicated that she will ask the Board to hold statements by an employer during an organizing campaign that imply employees access to management will be limited if a union is voted in, involving an employer’s threat to close a plant where there is little evidence the threat was disseminated to other employees, and the promulgation of a mandatory arbitration agreement in response to employees engaging in collective action, to be ULPs.
Enhanced Use of Section 10(j) Injunctive Relief
Under Section 10(j) of the Act, the Board can seek authorize the General Counsel to seek injunctive relief as an interim remedy against an alleged ULP when the General Counsel, on behalf of the Board, convinces the court that (i) there is reasonable cause to believe that a ULP has been committed or there is a likelihood of success on the merits in a ULP proceeding, and (ii) issuing such an injunction is just and proper. Under the first prong of this standard, the courts give the NLRB considerable deference to its belief that a violation has occurred, and frequently rely on a very limited evidentiary record in finding reasonable cause/likely success on merits. The second prong of this test looks to see whether remedial failure is likely if the court does not grant the injunction. If ordered, injunctions can require employers and unions to refrain from certain actions (such as refraining from interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights) to take certain affirmative actions (such as requiring employers to reinstate employees or to bargain with a union even if the union did not win an NLRB representation election). In practice, the pursuit of Section 10(j) injunctive relief has been quite limited throughout the history of the NLRA.
The 10(j) Utilization Memo signals that the current General Counsel will seek to pursue injunctive relief on a much broader basis than has been the case to date. The memo suggests that the General Counsel intends to target the following types of cases as warranting consideration for Section 10 (j) relief: (i) cases involving discharges from employment during union organizing campaigns; (ii) charges alleging other ULP violations during organizing campaigns that lead to a need for a Gissel bargaining order, that is where the General Counsel alleges that the employer’s alleged ULP conduct will prevent the holding of an election in which employees can vote freely; (iii) charges alleging failure to bargain in good faith and other violations following a union’s certification as the bargaining representative, when parties should be negotiating an initial collective bargaining agreement; (iv) cases involving allegations of unlawful withdrawals of recognition from incumbent unions; and (v) cases involving a successor’s refusal to bargain and/or refusal to hire. According the 10(j) Utilization Memo, pursuit of Section 10(j) injunctions should all be considered when the Regional Offices believe there is a threat of remedial failure—that is, a Board Order after a ULP hearing and review by the Board will be too little or too late. According to the memo, the General Counsel is now urging the Board’s Regional Offices to examine all ULP charges as potential candidates for Section 10(j) relief at the earliest stages of the litigation.
The General Counsel’s stated intent to aggressively seek Section 10(j) relief is a stark departure from the Trump Board and a return to the approach of the Obama Board, which sought 10(j) relief on a more frequent basis than prior administrations. See the Board’s 10-year record in seeking Section 10(j) injunctive relief. (The Board sought eight Section 10(j) authorizations in 2020 and 13 in 2019; the Board under Obama sought 37 Section 10(j) injunctions in 2017.)
GC Memo 21-04 and the 10(j) Utilization Memo signal that substantial changes are taking place at the NLRB as the agency seeks to put teeth to President Biden’s promise to be the most pro-union President in history. Employers can no longer expect that the precedent established under the Trump Board will stand and will protect them from union organizing, strikes, or other concerted activities by employees or from ULP charges.
As featured in #WorkforceWednesday: This week, we look at the potential “game changing” legal and policy shifts coming to labor relations.
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, if enacted, would make the most significant changes to the National Labor Relations Act since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was created in 1935. The PRO Act is a top priority of the union movement in the United States and is supported by President Biden, who claims to be the most pro-union president in U.S. history. Attorney Steve Swirsky discusses the potential impact the PRO Act could have on employers. Beyond the PRO Act, Steve also looks at how Jennifer Abruzzo’s confirmation as NLRB general counsel could impact the agency’s litigation and enforcement agenda.
See below for the video and podcast links. For Other Highlights and more news, visit http://www.ebglaw.com/eltw219.
On July 21, 2021, the U.S. Senate confirmed Jennifer Abruzzo to a four-year term as the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”). Ms. Abruzzo’s confirmation was by a vote of 51-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Ms. Abruzzo was sworn in the next day, by NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran. As the NLRB notes, this is “the first time in NLRB history women are serving as both Chairman and General Counsel” of the agency.
Ms. Abruzzo has spent much of her career at the NLRB. She previously served as the Board’s Deputy General Counsel and Acting General Counsel during the Obama administration, and most recently served as Special Counsel for Strategic Initiatives to the Communication Workers of America (“CWA”), the country’s largest communications and media labor union. The CWA, like most other unions, is a strong supporter of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, commonly referred to as the “PRO Act.”
The General Counsel’s Role
The General Counsel is the chief legal officer of the Board, and her responsibilities include setting the agency’s litigation and enforcement agenda and priorities and having general supervision of the NLRB field offices, and thereby has a significant hand in shaping the interpretation and application of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) and nation’s labor policies. Her confirmation, coupled with the expected change of the composition of the Board to a Democrat-appointed majority this summer, solidifies the shift to pro-labor and pro-union policy. President Biden has promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and is a strong supporter of the PRO Act, and his nominations and appointments reflect that priority.
President Biden’s Firing of Former General Counsel Peter Robb
Ms. Abruzzo succeeds Acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr, who was named to that role in January 2021, following President Biden’s firing of Peter Robb, who had been nominated to the role by former President Trump and confirmed by the Senate early in his administration. President Biden, in an unprecedented action and sign of his interest in supporting unions, fired then-NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb on Inauguration Day, even though Mr. Robb’s four-year term had nearly 10 months left. The decision to remove Mr. Robb generated backlash and legal challenges and the close vote in Ms. Abruzzo’s confirmation reflected this.
There have been a number of legal challenges to the firing of Mr. Robb, and questions remain concerning whether Mr. Ohr, as Acting General Counsel, in fact had the legal authority to function as such. In March 2021, the NLRB denied an employer’s request to file a special appeal of a decision rejecting an employer’s motion to dismiss an unfair labor practice complaint issued by a Regional Director as an agent for the Acting General Counsel. The employer asserted that the complaint should be dismissed because Mr. Ohr’s appointment was unlawful, arguing that President Biden didn’t have the authority to fire the general counsel of an independent agency since the Board is supposed to be removed from White House influence.
More recently, Goonan v. Amerinox Processing, Inc., the first court decision involving a challenge to Mr. Ohr’s authority, was issued. In that decision, a district court in New Jersey held that unlike Board members, who may only be removed by the President for cause following notice and hearing, Presidents may lawfully remove general counsels at their discretion. This issue is likely to be considered by additional courts notwithstanding Ms. Abruzzo’s confirmation.
General Counsel Abruzzo’s Background
Ms. Abruzzo is seen as keen on expanding and protecting the rights of workers to join unions and likely to advocate for more union-friendly policies under the Act. She is expected to seek the reversal of budget cuts and staffing reductions implemented under Mr. Robb and policies that critics say have hobbled the ability of NLRB lawyers to pursue unfair labor practice charges and investigate worker complaints against employers.
Ms. Abruzzo has spent the majority of her career at the NLRB, serving for more than two decades in a variety of roles and eventually rising to serve as Deputy General Counsel during the Obama administration, where she served under General Counsel Richard Griffin. She then briefly served as Acting General Counsel following the end of his term.
Much like her immediate predecessor, Mr. Ohr, Ms. Abruzzo is expected to continue rolling back Trump-era policies and to argue for more union-friendly interpretations of the Act. For example, Mr. Ohr affirmed in a recent General Counsel Memorandum his plan to pursue a broadening of employees’ protections under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act beyond concerted activities relating to union activity and labor organizing, for instance, by expanding the Board’s traditional view of protected concerted activity to protect employees’ political and social justice advocacy activities under Section 7. A hallmark of Mr. Griffin’s term as General Counsel was an effort to expand the Board’s application of the Act in non-union workplaces and Ms. Abruzzo is expected to renew that focus.
Following Ms. Abruzzo’s confirmation, the NLRB announced Mr. Ohr’s elevation to the position of Deputy General Counsel, the role Ms. Abruzzo held during the Obama administration.
The Changing Composition of the Board
The Board consists of five members, one of whom serves as Chairman. All members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Traditionally, a majority of Board members are from the same political affiliations as the President.
The Board is currently led by Chairman Lauren McFerran, a Democrat first nominated by President Obama and elevated in January 2021 to Chairman by President Biden. At present, the three other Board members are Republicans, with one spot vacant. Although there is currently a Republican majority in the Board, this is expected to change, when Board Member William Emanuel’s term expires on August 27, 2021.
President Biden recently nominated two Democrats, Gywnne Wilcox and David Prouty, to serve as Board members, both of whom have spent their legal careers representing unions. Their nominations have been advanced by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and are expected to be brought to the full Senate shortly. Ms. Wilcox is both a partner in the union-side law firm of Levy Ratner and an Associate General Counsel for 1199 SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East. Mr. Prouty presently serves as General Counsel of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the New York-based local that represents more than 175,000 service workers on the East Coast and, if confirmed, will take the seat to be vacated by Mr. Emanuel in August 2021.
What Can Employers Expect?
The combination of a President who openly expresses the goal of being “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and who was elected with strong union support, together with a General Counsel who is coming to her position from the CWA and a career at the NLRB, with a Democratic majority on the Board, including two Board Members who have spent much of their professional lives seeking to advance the interests of unions and workers, is likely to produce an activist Board and General Counsel’s office that will seek to shift the balance in labor law enforcement and administration in ways that will present challenges for employers.
Christopher Shur, a Law Clerk – Admission Pending (not admitted to the practice of law) in the firm’s New York office, contributed to the preparation of this post.
On June 15, 2021, the Office of General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) released an Advice Memorandum, explaining that an Illinois pub did not commit an unfair labor practice when it fired an employee who had previously complained about the pub’s COVID-19 safety policies, because the employee’s complaints did not constitute “protected concerted activity,” as defined under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The NLRA protects employees engaged in concerted activity, including participating in union activities and union organizing and other activities that the Board considers to be for their mutual aid and protection. Peter Sung Ohr, since his appointment as the NLRB’s Acting General Counsel following the discharge of his predecessor, Peter Robb, by President Joseph Biden, has taken a far broader view than his predecessors as to the types of subjects to which Section 7 of the NLRA’s protections apply. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, what constitutes concerted activity remains uncertain. The Advice Memorandum sheds light on how the Board may define concerted activity moving forward in the context of employee responses to COVID-19 workplace policies.
While preparing to reopen, after temporarily closing for the pandemic, the owner of a pub in Illinois (“the Employer”) held a staff meeting during which a bartender (“the Employee”) complained about the Employer’s decision not to pay employees for certain time spent cleaning. In a subsequent text message exchange with a manager and another bartender, the Employee asked whether the Employer’s decision to not require employees to wear face coverings conflicted with the local government guidance.
After the pub reopened, the Employee continued to raise concerns to a supervisor regarding compliance with local COVID-19 ordinances and what the Employee claimed was the risk of allowing customers inside the pub rather than limiting their access to the outside patio. The Employee later informed their supervisor that they would only feel safe returning to work if the Employer changed its COVID-19 policies and limited patrons to the patio area. The Employer terminated the Employee, and told the Employee it was due to their unwillingness to return to work.
The Employee then filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB’s Regional Office, which elevated the issue to the Division of Advice at the Office of the Board’s General Counsel to seek guidance on what the Regional Office saw as a novel question.
The General Counsel’s View
The Division of Advice concluded that the Employee’s complaints were not protected concerted activity because “there [was] no evidence [the Employee] discussed these concerns with other employees or otherwise involved them in [the Employee’s] efforts.”
The Division of Advice noted that while the Employee’s complaints regarding pay during the staff meeting “arguably constituted protected concerted activity,” it ultimately found no evidence that those complaints were the real reason for the Employee’s discharge. The Employee’s pay complaints “bore no relation to” the Employee’s later concerns regarding customers being allowed inside the pub.
The Division of Advice also concluded that the Employee’s text message exchange with a manager and another bartender regarding whether the Employer would require employees to wear face coverings while at work did not constitute concerted activity. In doing so, the Advice Memorandum explained that (i) the Employee only asked whether the Employer’s face covering policy conflicted with local guidance and did not complain to the manager, and (ii) the Employee had not engaged in any activities with the other bartender for their mutual aid or protection. Accordingly, the Division of Advice concluded that the evidence did not satisfy the NLRB’s Wright Line standard, which requires demonstrating that a causal connection exists between an adverse employment action and known employee activities that are protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. Thus, the Employer did not commit an unfair labor practice by discharging the Employee.
Potential Impact on Employers
The reasoning set forth in this Advice Memorandum suggests how the NLRB is likely to analyze employee complaints about workplace safety matters in the COVID-19 era and whether and in what circumstances such complaints may be held to constitute protected concerted activity under the NLRA. As we continue to navigate a return to on-site work by a greater number of employees, employers are likely to face increasing questions and complaints regarding COVID-19 safety policies and practices. Despite Acting General Counsel Ohr’s broader view of the types of employee conduct that are protected by Section 7 of the NLRA, employee questions and complaints regarding COVID-19 safety policies and practices are unlikely to constitute protected concerted activity unless the questions and complaints are intended to improve conditions of employment and occur in a group setting or on behalf of, or in concert with, other employees.
Alexandria Adkins, a 2021 Summer Associate (not admitted to the practice of law) in the firm’s New York office, contributed to the preparation of this post.