Featured on Employment Law This Week:  General Counsel Peter Robb could be signaling a shift at the NLRB.

Robb has reportedly suggested structural changes that could establish a new layer of management between the General Counsel and the field. These reports come as the NLRB seeks to adjust to cuts to its budget and a decline in case filings. If implemented, the changes could remove authority from the Regional Directors and shift more decision-making to the GC. Sources report that some changes are likely before the new budget year next October.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

 

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, those interested in the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) waited anxiously for the new President to fill key positions that would allow the Board to reconsider many of the actions of the past eight years. Over the last six months, the Board has begun to revisit, and overrule, several union-friendly and pro-employee Obama-era Board decisions. The Board’s new General Counsel has also given clear guidance as to where else employers can expect to see his office pursue further changes in how the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”) will be interpreted and enforced.

In this Take 5, we offer an overview of key aspects of what the new Board has done to date, and what can be expected going forward:

  1. What to Look Out for This Year at the NLRB
  2. Hy-Brand Industrial Overrules Browning-Ferris and Sets New NLRB Standard for Determining Joint-Employer Status
  3. NLRB Ruling in The Boeing Co. Establishes New Standards Governing Employee Handbook Rules and Policies
  4. The Trump Board Signals a Return to Traditional Standards in Representation Cases
  5. As the NLRB Steps Back, Cities Step Forward

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

Over the past several weeks there have been conflicting reports concerning what The New York Times described as “a proposal” by Peter Robb, who was sworn in as the National Labor Relations Board’s  (“NLRB” or the “Board”) General Counsel on November 17, 2017, to “demote” the Board’s Regional Directors and career “senior civil servants who resolve most labor cases,” and transfer their decision making authority to “a small cadre of officials installed above them in the National Labor Relations Board’s hierarchy,” apparently answerable to the General Counsel.

Under the Board’s long standing organizational structure, the Regional Directors, who oversee the NLRB’s 26 Regional Offices, oversee the investigation of unfair labor practice charges, including making the determination, after investigation by attorneys and field examiners assigned to the Regional Offices, whether charges are supported by probable cause and should be prosecuted before an Administrative Law Judge or be dismissed.  They also oversee the processing of representation petitions and the conduct of elections in which employees vote on union representation.

The Regional Directors’ Letter

According to a letter on behalf of the 24 current Regional Directors, in a conference call on January 11, 2018, Mr. Robb outlined a series of steps he was considering to restructure the Board’s field offices and the Regional Directors’ role.  Highlights of the proposal described in the letter included:

  • Eliminating the Board’s Regional Offices and replacing them with “large Districts;”
  • Downgrading or demoting the current Regional Directors from SES positions to lower graded GS-15 status; and
  • Transferring the Regional Directors’ substantive decision making responsibilities to a new layer of managers under the General Counsel’s direction.

Currently Regional Directors generally have broad authority to review unfair labor practices cases and determine whether those cases move forward. The General Counsel’s reported proposal would have the effect of removing much of the NLRB’s prosecutorial powers and discretion from these career employees and instead placing these responsibilities with persons appointed by the General Counsel.

In the letter the Regional Directors expressed their concerns to Robb, saying that his proposal would have a “severe and negative impact on our agency and our stakeholders” and “will cause senior Directors and managers, whose institutional knowledge is a valuable asset to the Agency, to retire sooner than they otherwise intended.”

The Regional Directors’ letter states that while the Regional Directors had initially understood that any consideration of restructuring the Regional Offices and the existing structure would be “in response to budgetary concerns,” Mr. Robb told them during the call that “the restructuring would take place regardless of budgetary considerations.”

The General Counsel Has Denied The Reports

At this point, the General Counsel has not made public a plan to reorganize or restructure the Board’s offices and structure. Speaking before a January 19, 2018 meeting of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Practice and Procedure Before the National Labor Relations Board, Mr. Robb denied having told the Regional Directors that he had formulated such a plan, and reportedly stated that such a plan would require the approval of the Board itself, the five Presidential appointees who are subject to Senate confirmation.  Board Chairman Marvin Kaplan has also reportedly stated that under the structure whereby the Board delegates certain authority to the General Counsel, such a restructuring would require Board approval.

The reported proposal follows a series of aggressive changes in posture at the NLRB since last fall, when Republicans gained a majority on the five-member Board. Mr. Robb’s proposal likely needs the Board’s approval to go into effect.  Since Member Phillip Miscimarra’s departure on December 16, 2017, however, the Board has been split between 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans.  Republicans will regain control of the Board if the Senate confirms John Ring for the currently open seat.

However, there can be no question that given recent budgets and those likely in the future, the NLRB will be required to get by with fewer resources, which probably means fewer employees since the vast majority of its budget is devoted to salary and benefits costs. Notably, the NLRB has also been faced with declining budgets and appropriations over the past several years. Last year, the Board’s budget was slashed by $16 Million, from $274 Million to $258 Million, the lowest level since 2009.

In fact, data published on the Board’s website reflects a steady decline in the number of charges filed over the past decade, from 22,497 charges in fiscal 2008 to 19,280 in fiscal 2017. Similarly, the number of election petitions filed by unions over that period declined from 2,418 to 1,854.

The Board and General Counsel’s Office Are Looking at Changes

Notably, on January 31, 2018, an email concerning “Case Processing Suggestions,”  along with a 4 page memo described as a “draft summary of suggestions” for improving Board processes and procedures, and presumably helping to address the pressures resulting from the Board’s reduced budget, was made public. The email, dated January 29, 2018, describes various suggestions developed from “all levels of the organization” in both the field and headquarters.  Feedback is sought from within the Board’s Regional Offices by February 9, 2018. We will continue to follow and report on developments.

The White House has announced that John Ring, co-chair of the Labor & Employment Law practice at a management side law firm, is the President’s choice for the vacancy on the National Labor Relations Board created last month when Board Chairman Phillip Miscimarra completed his term on December 16, 2017. Mr. Ring’s nomination to the Board is subject to Senate confirmation. No date has been set for hearings on the nomination.

The Board is Now Split 2-2

Since Mr. Miscimarra’s departure from the Board, where he was part of a 3-2 Republican majority following the confirmation of Marvin Kaplan, who has now been named Chairman, and William Emanuel, the Board has been composed of 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran, both appointed by President Obama.

When Mr. Ring is Confirmed A New Republican Majority is Expected to Continue to Revisit Obama Era Decisions Overruling Long Standing Precedents  

During December 2017, the Board issued a number of significant decisions, overruling Obama-era decisions including overturning Browning-Ferris Industries and returning to a more traditional test for determining whether two businesses are joint-employers, adopting new standards for determining whether facially neutral employer policies and handbooks unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, overturning  which opened the doors to organizing in so-called micro-units, and other decisions seen as tilting the Board’s administration and interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act in favor of unions.  Since Member Miscimarra’s departure however, the Board has been split between 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans, resulting in an inability to form a majority to reverse Obama era holdings.  Provided Mr. Ring is confirmed, the Board will once again return to a 3-2 Republican majority.

There Are a Significant Number of Important Issues the Board’s General Counsel Plans to Ask the Board to Reexamine Once Member Ring Is Confirmed and a Republican Majority Is in Place

In December, General Counsel Peter B. Robb issued GC Memorandum 18-02, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, identifying those issues that he had identified as ones the Board’s Regional Offices should refer to the Division of Advice in the Office of the General Counsel.  These include “cases that involve significant legal issues,” including “cases over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents, cases involving issues that the Board has not decided, and any other cases that the Region believes will be of importance to the General Counsel.”

The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a broad swath of recent Board precedents and topics that must be submitted to Advice, where there is a good chance the new General Counsel will ask the Board to return to pre-Obama Board interpretations of the Act and practices.  These include:

  • Joint –Employer – Browning-Ferris Industries’ holding that joint-employer relationships can be found based on “evidence of indirect or potential control over the working conditions of another employer’s employees.
  • Use of Employer’s Email Systems for Union Activity– The Mandatory Submission Memo calls for the submission to Advice of all cases involving claims based on Purple Communications’ holding that “employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email systems to engage in Section 7 activities. The Memo also explains that the new General Counsel is effectively overruling prior Advice Memoranda in which his predecessor noted his initiative “to extend Purple Communications to other [employer owned] electronic systems,” such as the internet, phones and instant messaging systems that employees regularly use in the course of their work.
  • Cases In Which Policies in Employee Handbooks Were Found to Interfere With Section 7 Rights – The Mandatory Submissions Memo indicates the General Counsel will likely be asking the Board to reexamine a broad range of holdings in which policies and conduct standards contained in handbooks and work rules were found to interfere with employees Section 7 rights, in many cases in non-union workplaces. These will include cases finding prohibiting “’disrespectful’ conduct,’ rules prohibiting the use of cameras and recording devices in the workplace, and policies concerning confidentiality in investigations.
  • Cases Involving the Standard For Determining Whether Employees Would Find a Work Rule or Policy to Unlawfully Interfere With Section 7 Rights – Which Board Member Miscimarra – One of the areas in which (then) NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra most frequently disagreed with his colleagues on the Obama Board was over the Board’s use of the Lutheran Heritage test, which he repeatedly described as a test that “defies common sense.” Look for the new General Counsel to ask the Board to adopt the standard which (then) Chairman Miscimarra proposed in his now legendary dissent in William Beaumont Hospital.
  • Cases in Which The Obama Board Expanded the Definition of Concerted Activity For Mutual Aid and Protection – In cases such as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market the Obama Board expanded the circumstances in which it would find an employee’s actions to be protected, holding that an employee’s actions involving a matter in which “only one employee had an immediate stake in the outcome to be protected.” Such cases must now be referred to Advice and it can be anticipated the General Counsel will ask the Board to reexamine.
  • Cases involving “Obscene, Vulgar or Other Highly Inappropriate Conduct”- The new General Counsel will be considering whether the Board went too far in holding in cases such as Pier Sixty, LLC that even where employees engaged in expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family, the employee’s actions remained protected by the Act.

The Mandatory Submissions Memo also identifies each of the following as issues that must be submitted to Advice:

  • Work stoppages on employer premises;
  • The circumstances in which employers may restrict access to employer property at times when employees are off duty;
  • The recent expansion of Weingarten rights in the context of employer-mandated drug testing;
  • Employer obligations and rights with respect to wage increases during bargaining, where the increases are provided to unrepresented employees but not the employees whose wages and increases are being bargained;
  • Claims by unions that employers are successors by virtue of their hiring a predecessor’s employees as required by local laws;
  • The circumstances in which a new employer will be found to be a “perfectly clear successor” obligated to follow its predecessor’s terms and conditions rather than being free to set new terms and conditions for those it hires from a predecessor’s workforce;
  • Whether an employer must disclose and produce witness statements prior to arbitrations; and
  • Whether employers will be required to continue to honor contractual dues check off provisions after a collective bargaining agreement expires.

The New Majority Can Be Expected to Examine these and Other Questions

It is expected that once Mr. Ring is confirmed and the new majority is in place, the Board will be reconsidering existing precedents concerning these and other issues and looking at the 2014 Amended Election Rules adopted by the Obama Board

In footnotes to two recent unpublished NLRB decisions,  NLRB Chairman Marvin Kaplan, who was named to that role by the President following the December 16, 2017 conclusion of Philip Miscimarra’s term, and Member William Emanuel offered interested observers an indication of two additional areas of Board law that they believe warrant reconsideration once Mr. Miscimarra’s replacement is nominated and confirmed, and the Board returns to a 3-2 Republican majority.

While unpublished Board decisions “are not intended or appropriate for publication and are not binding precedent, except with respect to the parties in the specific case,” as in the two cases discussed below, can offer important insights into what Board members are thinking about significant matters, and therefore can give readers an idea what to expect when particular issues come before the Board in future cases. In this regard, they, like the General Counsel’s recent Memorandum on Mandatory Submissions to Advice, give meaningful guidance to employers and advocates.

The Board is Likely to Revisit and Move Away from Obama Era Holdings re Confidentiality in Settlement Agreements

During the past eight years, one of the signatures of the Obama Board was its effort to expand the application of the National Labor Relations Act’s relevance to non-union workplaces. One aspect of this was a series of Board decisions finding that when employers sought to include broad confidentiality provisions in private settlement and separation agreements with employees that restricted the employees’ ability to disclose the terms of such settlements to others, including employees, they were impermissibly restricting employees’ ability to act together with other employees concerning terms and conditions of employment.

In a footnote to a December 27, 2017 unpublished decision denying a motion for summary judgment in an unfair labor practice complaint issued against Baylor University School of Medicine, Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel wrote as follows:

Members Emanuel and Kaplan agree that there are genuine issues of material fact warranting a hearing and that the Respondent is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

However, they believe that, to the extent not already permitted under Board precedent, the legality of confidential severance agreements for former employees should be reconsidered

While the Baylor University decision does not answer the question of when and in what circumstances the Board will recognize an employer’s right to lawfully require confidentiality in settlement agreements and other agreements that where they would have been found to interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, the tea leaves more than suggest a change in Board law as soon as the Board returns to five members and an appropriate case is before the new majority.

The Board is Likely to Change How It Interprets and Applies the Blocking Charge Rule

Another important area that Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel indicated they want to see the Board re-examine is a Board doctrine commonly referred to as the Blocking Charge Rule.

Under the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules, the NLRB holds that when an unfair labor practice charge is filed during the pendency of an representation petition, the Board will not conduct the election if the party that has filed the charge, typically the petitioning union, or in the case of a decertification petition, the incumbent union facing a vote to decertify it as the representative, if the charge alleges actions by the employer that the union claims prevent or interfere with a fair election. Many observers believe that such blocking charges are used tactically by unions that are concerned they face defeat at the polls.

Under the 2014 Amended Election Rules, it is quite easy for a union to use such a charge to block an election:

Section 103.20 of the final rule requires that a party wishing to block processing of the petition must file a request to block and simultaneously file a written offer of proof in support of its unfair labor practice charge. If the Region believes the charge precludes a question concerning representation and no request is filed, the Region may ask the Charging Party if they wish to request to block.  If so, the Charging Party should be informed that they must file a request to block and an offer of proof, including the names of witnesses who will testify in support of the charge and a summary of each witness’s anticipated testimony. In addition, the Charging Party must promptly make the witnesses available to the Region.

In a December 20, 2017 unpublished decision in a case involving a decertification petition filed by an employee of ADT, in which the incumbent union filed ULP charges, to prevent an election:

Member Kaplan agrees with the decision to deny review here. He notes, however, that, consistent with the Petitioner’s suggestion, he would consider revisiting the Board’s blocking charge policy in a future appropriate case. Member Emanuel agrees that the determination to hold the petition in abeyance in this case was permissible under the Board’s current blocking charge policy, but he believes that the policy should be changed. Specifically, he believes that an employee’s petition for an election should generally not be dismissed based on contested and unproven allegations of unfair labor practices.

One of the more interesting aspects of this decision and footnote is that both Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel, although not disagreeing with the Regional Director’s application of the rule in the case before them, each expressed their view that the Blocking Charge Rule, which is not a rule at all but rather a Board-created doctrine or policy “should be changed.”

Last Friday – the day the Star Wars movie Episode VIII hit theaters and the last working day of National Labor Relations Board Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra’s term – the Board continued its efforts to undo some of the most controversial and problematic decisions rendered by the Obama Board before the Republicans temporarily lose their majority.  As we previously reported, recent days have seen a stream of significant decisions and other actions from the National Labor Relations Board.  Most notably, the Board discarded the much criticized indirect control test for determining joint-employer status adopted in Browning Ferris joint employer test and returned to its traditional joint employer standard; it established a new, more reasonable standard under which the legality of employer policies and handbooks will be assessed which, unlike the former test, actually gives weight to an employer’s legitimate interests in promulgating the rule; and it opened public comment on the expedited election rules and procedures, the first critical step to amending those rules.

Notably, these and the other decisions discussed in this article involve issues which the Board’s new General Counsel identified as being among those subject to mandatory submission to the Division of Advice, i.e, “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents.”

The Board continued its own reconsideration of cases in which the Obama Board had overruled precedent, often over the dissent of Chairman Miscimarra, on Friday with two more significant decisions:  PCC Structurals, which overturned the “overwhelming community of interest” test that the Board has adopted in Specialty Healthcare, which has been seen as leading to the proliferation of “micro bargaining units,” and Raytheon Network, which reinstated employers’ right to unilaterally implement changes when there is not a collective bargaining agreement in effect, where such changes are consistent with established past practice.  As discussed below, collectively these decisions are beginning to restore balance to labor relations after nearly a decade of pro-union decisions that discarded long standing Board precedents.

PCC Structurals Restores the Traditional Community-of-Interest Standard – Overturns Specialty Healthcare’s “Overwhelming Community of Interest” Test

In 2011, the Board in Specialty Healthcare materially changed the test that it would use to assess how it will address the scope of a unit for a representation election and collective bargaining when a union petitioned for an election in a bargaining unit that the employer argued was too narrowly drawn because it  improperly excluded similarly situated employees who shared a community of interest with the petitioned-for workers.  Rather than evaluating whether it was a “sufficiently distinct” community of interest between the petitioned-for unit and excluded employees, as long-standing precedent required, in Specialty Healthcare, the Board held that a petitioned-for unit would be deemed appropriate unless, as the PCC Structurals decision points out, the employer proved “the next-to impossible burden . . . that ‘employees inside and outside [the] proposed unit share an overwhelming community of interest’ . . . .”  Under the Specialty Healthcare standard, employers contesting a union’s petitioned-for unit had the herculean burden of showing that other employees’ interests “overlap almost completely” with the union’s desired group.

As the majority in PCC Structurals pointed out, Specialty Healthcare afforded “extraordinary deference” to the union’s petitioned-for unit and led to the rise of fractured “micro-bargaining” units that defy well-established industry rules.  For example, under Specialty Healthcare, the Board has approved units limited to individual sales departments within a department  store, “notwithstanding the Board’s longstanding rule that favors storewide units within the retail industry,”  and units of prepress employees that exclude press employees in contravention of “the Board’s ‘traditional’ rule that press and prepress employees should ordinarily be included in the same ‘lithographic unit.’”  In PCC Structurals, the Board observed these results ignored the substantial interests of excluded employees and interfered with their rights under the Act.

To rectify these problematic results and better effectuate the Act’s goal of assuring “employees their fullest freedom in exercising their rights under the Act,” the Board in PCC Structurals overturned Specialty Healthcare and returned to the standard that governed the assessment of petitioned-for units for nearly all of the Act’s history prior to Specialty Healthcare.  Under the reinstated standard, the Board will evaluate whether the excluded employees also share a community of interest with the petitioned-for unit and, if so, will include them in the unit.

Specifically, as it had for decades prior to Specialty Healthcare, the Board will return to the traditional community-of-interest multi-factor test which examines:

whether the employees are organized into separate department; have district skills and training; have distinct job functions and perform distinct work, including inquiry into the amount and type of job overlap between job classifications; are functionally integrated with the Employer’s other employees; have frequent contact with other employees; interchange with other employees; have distinct terms and conditions of employment and are separately supervised.

As the majority observed, in ensuring the Board examines the interests of all employees (both included and excluded), it “corrects the imbalance created by Specialty Healthcare…”

Raytheon Network Reinstates Employers’ Right To Implement Unilateral Changes Pursuant to Past Practice After the Collective Bargaining Agreement Expires

In 2016, the Board majority in E.I. Du Pont De Nemours held that, after a collective bargaining agreement expires, unilateral changes implemented by an employer pursuant to established past practice were unlawful if the change involved managerial discretion.    Then-member Miscimarra vigorously dissented, arguing that the majority’s decision created an untenable definition of “change” that defies common sense and encompasses any action that involves the slightest managerial discretion, despite being materially indistinguishable in kind or degree from the employer’s customary past actions.

In Raytheon Network, the Board reversed E.I. Du Pont and adopted Chairman Miscimarra’s reasoning in his Du Pont dissent.  The Board majority noted that, under Du Pont, an employer would be found to have made an unlawful unilateral change in violation of Section 8(a)(5) of the Act, even though the employer merely “continues to do precisely what it had done many times previously – for years or even decades…”  The majority held this “fundamentally flawed” position “is inconsistent with Section 8(a)(5), it distorts the long-understood, commonsense understanding of what constitutes a change, and it contradicts well-established Board and court precedent.”  The Board also pointed out that the Du Pont extreme view of “change” was contrary to the guidance of the Supreme Court in NLRB v. Katz, on which the Board’s pre-Du Pont decisions were based. The Board concluded that continuing adherence to the Du Pont change standard could not be reconciled with the Board’s responsibility to foster stable bargaining relationships.  Accordingly, the majority overruled Du Pont and reinstated the rule that an employer may lawfully take unilateral actions “that do not materially vary in kind or degree from what has been customary in the past,” even though such actions may involve some managerial discretion.

With Miscimarra’s Exit, Dismantling The Obama Board’s Legacy Will Likely Stall

The Obama Board frequently broke with longstanding precedent and ushered in new rules that arguably favored labor unions while disregarding the legitimate business concerns of employers.  These decisions were often met with vigorous dissents warning that such decisions would cause unpredictable, unfair, and unsustainable results in labor-management relations.  The most prominent and vocal of these dissenters was Chairman Miscimarra.  Since attaining a Republican majority, the Board has implemented many of the rules and principles articulated in Miscimarra’s dissents, overturning some of the most controversial decisions rendered by the Obama Board and this past week’s decisions have certainly helped cement Chairman Miscimarra’s legacy of pragmatic adherence to the traditional principles of the Act.  However, with the expiration of Chairman Miscimarra’s term on December 16, 2017, the Board returns to 2 Republicans and 2 Obama-era holdover Democrats.  While various names have circulated as possible candidates for the now vacant seat, as of yet the President has not yet sent a name to Congress, nor has he indicated who he plans to nominate.  Thus, at least for now, the recent progress in reexamining and moving away from the Obama Board’s legacy remains on hold, at least at the Board level.  However, given the General Counsel’s recent announcement of issues targeted for submission to the Division of Advice, including all “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents,” there is every reason to believe that once a new majority is in place, the Board will, as the Jedi say, seek to bring balance to the Act.

It should come as no surprise that recent days have seen a stream of significant decisions and other actions from the National Labor Relations Board as Board Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra’s term moves towards its December 16, 2017 conclusion and as a new majority has recently taken shape with the confirmation of Members Marvin Kaplan and William Emanuel.  Chairman Miscimarra, while he was in a minority of Republican appointees from his confirmation during July 2013 until last month, has clearly and consistently explained why he disagreed with the standard adopted in Lutheran Heritage Village for determining whether a work rule or policy, whether in a handbook or elsewhere would be found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage concerted action with respect to their terms and conditions of employment as we as  the actions  of the Obama Board in a range of areas, including the 2015 adoption of a much relaxed standard for determining joint-employer status in Browning-Ferris Industries, and his disagreement with the expedited election rules that the Board adopted through amendments to the Board’s election rules.

The Board’s New Standard for Determining Joint Employer Status

In Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors Ltd. and Brandt Construction Co., decided on December 14, 2017, in a 3-2 decision, the Board has discarded the standard adopted in Browning-Ferris, and announced that it was returning to the previous standard and test for determining joint-employer status and returning to its earlier “direct and  immediate control standard.” Under this standard, “A finding of joint-employer status shall once again require proof that putative joint employer entities have exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having ‘reserved’ the right to exercise control), the control must be ‘direct and immediate’ (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is ‘limited and routine,’” and once again adopting a test that requires a showing that a putative joint –employer possesses “direct and immediate” control over the terms and conditions of employment of the employees of another employer.

In rejecting Browning-Ferris, the majority returns to a standard based on the common law test for determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists as a predicate to finding a joint-employer relationship.  Under Hy-Brand, a finding of joint-employer will require proof that putative joint employer entities have exercised joint control over essential employment terms (rather than merely having ‘reserved’ the right to exercise control), the control must be ‘direct and immediate’ (rather than indirect), and joint-employer status will not result from control that is ‘limited and routine.’”

The majority, consisting of Chairman Miscimarra and Members Kaplan and Emanuel explained why they were rejecting Browning-Ferris:

We think that the Browning-Ferris standard is a distortion of common law as interpreted by the board and the courts, it is contrary to the [National Labor Relations Act,] it is ill-advised as a matter of policy, and its application would prevent the board from discharging one of its primary responsibilities under the Act, which is to foster stability in labor-management relations.

The Board’s New Standard Governing Workplace Policies

In The Boeing Company, also decided on December 14, 2017, the Board adopted new standards for determining whether “facially neutral workplace rules, policies and employee handbook standards unlawfully interfere with the exercise” of employees rights protected by the NLRA.

In Boeing, the Board establishes the following new test:

when evaluating a facially neutral policy, rule or handbook provision that, when reasonably interpreted, would potentially interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights, the Board will evaluate two things: (i) the nature and extent of the potential impact on NLRA rights, and (ii) legitimate justifications associated with the rule.”

Boeing offers assistance to employers and others who wish to evaluate the legality of any particular rule or policy, by creating three categories of rules for this purpose:

Category 1 will include rules that the Board designates as lawful to maintain, either because (i) the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights; or (ii) the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.  Examples of Category 1 rules are the no-camera requirement maintained by Boeing, and rules requiring employees to abide by basic standards of civility.  Thus, the Board overruled past cases in which the Board held that employers violated the NLRA by maintaining rules requiring employees to foster “harmonious interactions and relationships” or to maintain basic standards of civility in the workplace.

Category 2 will include rules that warrant individualized scrutiny in each case as to whether the rule would prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights, and if so, whether any adverse impact on NLRA-protected conduct is outweighed by legitimate justifications.

Category 3 will include rules that the Board will designate as unlawful to maintain because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on NLRA rights is not outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.  An example would be a rule that prohibits employees from discussing wages or benefits with one another.

While the Board’s setting of these categories offers guidance, it will remain critical for employers and others to carefully assess each proposed rule and policy since the potential for substantial overlap between the categories will exist.

Equally important will be the application of rules and policies that may be facially lawful but subject to unlawful or inconsistent application.

An Assessment of the 2014 Expedited Election Rules

Because the expedited election rules were adopted through administrative rule making under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Board cannot simply discard or revise the 2015 amendments.

Noting that the 2014 Election Rules were adopted over the dissent of Chairman Miscimarra and then Member Harry Johnson, and the fact that these rules have now been effect for more than two years, on December 14th, the Board, over the dissents of Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerren, both of who were appointed by President Obama, published a Request for Information, seeking comment on the following three questions:

  1. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained without change?
  2. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained with modifications? If so, what should be modified?
  3. Should the 2014 Election Rule be rescinded? If so, should the Board revert to the Election Regulations that were in effect prior to the 2014 Election Rule’s adoption, or should the Board make changes to the prior Election Regulations? If the Board should make changes to the prior Election Regulations, what should be changed?

In explaining its decision to issue the Request, the Board majority has made clear that it is seeking the views of all interested parties, including labor and management, those in government and the Board’s General Counsel.  It has also made clear that while it is possible that it may engage in rulemaking to further amend the election rules and procedures, it may maintain the 2014 Election Rules without change, noting that “the Board merely poses three questions, two of which contemplate the possible retention of the 2014 Election Rule.”

Peter B. Robb, the newly sworn in General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board has issued a memorandum, Mandatory Submissions to Advice, GC Memo 18-02 (the “Mandatory Submissions Memo”), that offers clear information as to how he is likely to proceed in setting the agenda and priorities for the Office of the General Counsel which is “responsible for the investigation and prosecution of unfair labor practice cases and for the general supervision of the NLRB field offices in the processing of cases.” As we have previously noted, such Mandatory Submission memos offer a roadmap of the General Counsel’s priorities on cases and issues that he wants to get before the Board and often present a window into the General Counsel’s thinking about how he is likely to proceed.

“The Past Eight Years Have Seen Many Changes in Precedent”

In something of an understatement, reflecting on the activist Board of the Obama administration, the General Counsel observes that “the last eight years have seen many changes in precedent” from long standing Board holdings, “often with vigorous dissents.”   The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a number of the areas in which the Board moved in a more activist manner and identifies issues that the new General Counsel will seek to bring back before the Board.

All Cases Involving Significant Legal Issues Will Now Be Submitted to Advice

The Division of Advice, which is part of the Office of the General Counsel is charged with providing guidance to the Board’s Regional Offices “regarding difficult and novel issues arising in the processing of unfair labor practice charges, and coordinates the initiation and litigation of injunction proceedings in federal court under Section 10(j) and (l) of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Under the Memo, the General Counsel has directed that the following cases be submitted for guidance as cases “involving significant legal issues”:

  • “Cases that involve issues over the last eight years that overruled precedent and involved one or more dissents,”
  • “cases involving issues that the Board has not decided,” and
  • “any other cases that the Regional Offices “believe will be of importance to the General Counsel.”

While the Memo allows the Regional Offices to continue to issue complaints “where issuance is appropriate under current Board law,” the Memo directs the Regional Offices to seek guidance from Advice on how to present such issues to the Board in briefs to Administrative Law Judges and the Courts before filing, so that Advice can “provide appropriate guidance on how to present” or argue the issues.  In other words, Advice and the General Counsel may develop and pursue different legal theories and seek different outcomes and interpretations of the Act in such cases.

The General Counsel Will Not Be Re-Briefing Cases Already Before the Courts and the Board

Many of the most significant decisions of the Obama Board are already before the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal, either on applications by the Board for enforcement of its orders, or on requests by employers as respondents appealing from the Board’s decisions. These include cases like Browning-Ferris, the 2015 case in which the Board adopted a new and looser test for determining whether companies are joint employers, and Murphy Oil and D.R. Horton, in which the Board found that requiring employees to waive their rights to bring class claims in wage and hour and other lawsuits and to arbitrate rather than litigate in court, which are before the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court respectively.

According to the Mandatory Submissions Memo, “in order to avoid delay,” the General Counsel “will not be offering new views on cases pending in the courts, unless directed by the Board or courts.”

The Memo Identifies Specific Issues and Lines of Cases That Must be Submitted to Advice

The Mandatory Submissions Memo identifies a broad swath of recent Board precedents and topics that must be submitted to Advice, where there is a good chance the new General Counsel will ask the Board to return to pre-Obama Board interpretations of the Act and practices.  These include:

  • Joint –Employer – Browning-Ferris Industries’ holding that joint-employer relationships can be found based on “evidence of indirect or potential control over the working conditions of another employer’s employees.
  • Use of Employer’s Email Systems for Union Activity– The Mandatory Submission Memo calls for the submission to Advice of all cases involving claims based on Purple Communications’ holding that “employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email systems to engage in Section 7 activities. The Memo also explains that the new General Counsel is effectively overruling prior Advice Memoranda in which his predecessor noted his initiative “to extend Purple Communications to other [employer owned] electronic systems,” such as the internet, phones and instant messaging systems that employees regularly use in the course of their work.
  • Cases In Which Policies in Employee Handbooks Were Found to Interfere With Section 7 Rights – The Mandatory Submissions Memo indicates the General Counsel will likely be asking the Board to reexamine a broad range of holdings in which policies and conduct standards contained in handbooks and work rules were found to interfere with employees Section 7 rights, in many cases in non-union workplaces. These will include cases finding prohibiting “’disrespectful’ conduct,’ rules prohibiting the use of cameras and recording devices in the workplace, and policies concerning confidentiality in investigations.
  • Cases Involving the Standard For Determining Whether Employees Would Find a Work Rule or Policy to Unlawfully Interfere With Section 7 Rights – Which Board Member Miscimarra – One of the areas in which now NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra most frequently disagreed with his colleagues on the Obama Board was over the Board’s use of the Lutheran Heritage test, which he repeatedly described as a test that “defies common sense.” Look for the new General Counsel to ask the Board to adopt the standard which Chairman Miscimarra proposed in his now legendary dissent in William Beaumont Hospital.
  • Cases in Which The Obama Board Expanded the Definition of Concerted Activity For Mutual Aid and Protection In cases such as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market the Obama Board expanded the circumstances in which it would find an employee’s actions to be protected, holding that an employee’s actions involving a matter in which “only one employee had an immediate stake in the outcome to be protected.” Such cases must now be referred to Advice and it can be anticipated the General Counsel will ask the Board to reexamine.
  • Cases involving “Obscene, Vulgar or Other Highly Inappropriate Conduct”- The new General Counsel will be considering whether the Board went too far in holding in cases such as Pier Sixty, LLC that even where employees engaged in expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family, the employee’s actions remained protected by the Act.

The Mandatory Submissions Memo also identifies each of the following as issues that must be submitted to Advice:

  • Work stoppages on employer premises;
  • The circumstances in which employers may restrict access to employer property at times when employees are off duty;
  • The recent expansion of Weingarten rights in the context of employer-mandated drug testing;
  • Employer obligations and rights with respect to wage increases during bargaining, where the increases are provided to unrepresented employees but not the employees whose wages and increases are being bargained;
  • Claims by unions that employers are successors by virtue of their hiring a predecessor’s employees as required by local laws;
  • The circumstances in which a new employer will be found to be a “perfectly clear successor” obligated to follow its predecessor’s terms and conditions rather than being free to set new terms and conditions for those it hires from a predecessor’s workforce;
  • Whether an employer must disclose and produce witness statements prior to arbitrations; and
  • Whether employers will be required to continue to honor contractual dues check off provisions after a collective bargaining agreement expires.

The New General Counsel Will Be Looking at Recent Expansions of Remedies

One of the hallmarks of General Counsel Richard Griffin Jr.’s term was an attempt by the General Counsel to expand the range of remedies that could be granted in cases where unfair labor practices were found to have occurred. This was done both through administrative action and through arguments presented before the Board.  Such expanded or enhanced remedies included requiring employers to pay unions’ bargaining expenses, providing front pay to discriminates, reimbursing employees for job search and other expenses that had never before been reimbursable under the Act.  These matters too will be subject to review by Advice under the Mandatory Submissions Memo.

Deferral To Arbitration

The Mandatory Submissions Memo states that General Counsel Memorandum 12-01, issued on January 20, 2012, which laid out new standards to be followed by the Regional Offices for determining whether the Board would defer to an arbitrator’s award, is to be withdrawn and no longer followed. The Board’s website in fact already confirms that this memo and the standards it contained were withdrawn as of December 1, 2017.  While the Mandatory Submissions Memo does not expressly say so, it appears that the Regional Offices will now once again follow the Board’s longstanding Collyer deferral standards.

Graduate Students as Employees

Also withdrawn is General Counsel Memorandum 17-01, which addressed the prior General Counsel’s position on the question of whether graduate students and certain student athletes on scholarships should be treated as employees under the Act, as well as the question of whether faculty at religious affiliated universities and colleges teaching secular subjects would be able to organize and enjoy other protections of the Act.

There is Much More To Come

The above are only some of the most interesting areas covered in the Mandatory Submissions Memo.  With just over one week remaining before the conclusion of Chairman Miscimarra’s term on December 16th, observers are expecting a large number of cases that have been briefed before and considered by the Board to be decided. No doubt the decisions of the Republican majority Board will offer further indication of the direction the Board and the General Counsel will likely pursue.

The Senate has confirmed Peter B. Robb as the next General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”).  Mr. Robb, a management side labor lawyer perhaps best known for his representation of the FAA during the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, will succeed Richard Griffith, Jr., who was appointed to his four year term by President Barrack Obama in 2013.

Although Mr. Griffin’s term concluded on October 31st, and the Senate sent Mr. Robb’s confirmation to the President for his signature, to date President Trump has not signed off, with the result that since November 1st, Deputy General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has been serving as Acting General Counsel.

The Board’s General Counsel “is independent from the Board and is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of unfair labor practice cases and for the general supervision of the NLRB field offices in the processing of cases.” In fact, the General Counsel plays a key role in shaping policy by guiding the Board’s Regional Directors in terms of determining priorities for enforcement and shaping the legal arguments and theories that the attorneys in the Regional Offices will argue before the agencies Administrative Law Judges and the Board itself in unfair labor practice cases.  Notably, the General Counsel has the final and unreviewable decision making authority in investigations and in deciding whether a charge will be dismissed or a complaint will issue. Mr. Griffin was known as an advocate of a broad reading of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) and for aggressively applying the Act’s protections to employees in non-union businesses.

It is widely expected that once Mr. Robb takes the helm in the General Counsel’s Office that he will pursue an unwinding of many of the expansive actions of his predecessor in areas such as joint-employer, social media, deferral to arbitration and enforcement of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration of disputes between unrepresented employees and their employers.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441), which marks an important step in the campaign to reverse the Board’s controversial loosening in Browning Ferris Industries of the long standing tests for determining whether two businesses are joint employers expansion and share bargaining obligations and liability for each other’s actions.  The measure seeks to protect businesses with staffing, franchise and other contractual relationships from liability and union bargaining obligations for another business’ workers unless one business exercises direct control over the employees of the other.

Browning Ferris Expanded Liability for Franchises and Contractors

As we have previously reported, the Board fashioned a new joint employer standard in its 2015 Browning Ferris decision, which expanded joint employer status to any entity that merely possesses, but does not actually exercise, direct or indirect control over the working conditions of another business’ employees.   Browning Ferris jettisoned decades of Board precedent, which formerly required putative joint employers to not only possess the means to control terms and conditions of employment, but to also exercise that control in some meaningful way.  This decision widely impacted franchises as well as businesses that utilize contractors or retain personnel employed by staffing or temporary employment agencies.  If found a joint employer, the business can be required to bargain with any union representing its contractors employees and found liable for any unfair labor practices it or the contractor commits.

Citing a statistic that more than 2.87 million workers are now employed through temporary employment agencies, the Board and labor unions hailed the decision as a critical refinement that better reflects the economic realities of the modern workplace given the rise of nontraditional employment arrangements and complex franchise and contractual relationships  in which two or more independent businesses often arguably co-determine working conditions.  Opponents, however, say the revised standard hurts small businesses and creates liability for employers who, in reality, have absolutely no actual influence over the other employer’s employees’ working conditions.  In just the short time since Browning-Ferris, some of these fears have ostensibly materialized as the Board has sanctioned mixed bargaining units comprised of “solely employed workers” and “jointly employed workers,” and now requires separate businesses to bargain jointly over working conditions even though one or more of the businesses may have no actual influence or control over the working conditions of the other business’ employees.

Next Steps For The Save Local Business Act

Although Browning-Ferris is currently on appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Save Local Business Act represents an attempt to forge a path forward by amending the Act itself to clarify who may be considered a joint employer.   The bill passed the House with a vote of 242-181, with eight Democrats voting in favor of the measure.  Republicans have been touting the bill as a bipartisan success, but the measure may have a difficult road ahead in the Senate.  A similar bill died in the Senate last year after it failed to garner enough support from Democrats.  There is a good chance that the Save Local Business Act will meet a similar fate if it fails to secure bipartisan support in the Senate, which it is not likely to receive.  That is because although Republicans would have the votes to pass the Act, if it reached the floor for a vote, they do not at this time have the 60 votes they would need to overcome an effort to filibuster by Senate Democrats.