On Wednesday, the Senate narrowly confirmed John Ring, a management-side labor attorney from Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”).  With this vote, Ring fills the last remaining open seat on the Board, which was previously held by former Chairman Philip Miscimarra.  Ring’s term will expire on December 16, 2022.  The confirmation vote of 50-48 was largely down party lines, with only two Democrats voting in favor of Ring’s confirmation.  The strong opposition from the Democrats is likely due to the perceived efforts of the Trump administration to install pro-business members to the Board.  Several prominent Democratic senators, including Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), made very critical statements about Ring ahead of the vote.

On Thursday April 12th, the President announced that he was naming Ring to serve as Chairman of the Board. That action does not require Senate confirmation.  Marvin Kaplan who was previously named Acting Chairman will continue as a Board member. The addition of Ring to the NLRB once again gives Republican-appointees a 3-2 majority, which likely means several Obama-era pro-labor rulings will be overturned in the coming months and years.  When the Republican appointees briefly had a 3-2 majority at the end of 2017, several Obama-era decisions were overturned, including setting forth a new standard to evaluate handbook rules and overturning the Obama Board’s decision in Specialty Health Care eliminating micro-units.  Notably, with Ring’s appointment, it is likely that the Board will again revisit the standards for determining joint-employer status. In its  December 2017 decision in Hy-Brand  the Board overturned the Browning Ferris Industries decision, which had adopted a more lenient standard for determining joint employer status, and returned to a requirement of “direct and immediate control.”  While Hy-Brand was recently rescinded, it is expected that the newly constituted Board will  likely consider the issue again in the near future.

We will continue to monitor and provide developments on the Hy-Brand and other notable NLRB decisions.

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.

The DC Circuit Court, in its August 11th decision in Rhino Northwest, LLC v NLRB has found that the NLRB’s 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision revisiting the Board’s standards for determining whether a bargaining unit a union seeks to represent is appropriate, where the employer claims in excludes other classifications of employees who share a community of interest with the petitioned for employees, is supported by the National Labor Relations Act and that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard that the Board adopted in that case is entitled to deference and should be followed.

The Specialty Healthcare Holding

The NLRB’s 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision is frequently referred to as the “micro-unit” case. In Specialty Healthcare, the Board held that for an employer to establish that a unit is not appropriate and must include other classifications, the employer must prove the petitioned for unit is “truly inappropriate” and that the additional classifications the employer contends must be included in the unit share “an overwhelming community of interest” with the petitioned for classifications.   Many saw this as a contradiction to the long standing proposition that the extent of organizing or support could not be the basis for finding a group of employees to be an appropriate unit and a results driven decision by the Obama Board, intended to allow unions to gain footholds within employers’ workforces by achieving bargaining rights for small pockets of workers.

The Facts in Rhino Rigging

In Rhino, which is a concert equipment setup company, a local of IATSE, a union representing stagehands and theatrical professions, petitioned for an election in a group of “riggers” employed by the company at a location in Washington State. The employer argued that a unit of just riggers, employees who use motors to hoist and position overhead equipment at concerts and theatrical events, was not an appropriate unit, and that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard adopted by the Board in Specialty Healthcare was inconsistent with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act”) and that in any case, that the riggers shared an overwhelming community of interest with the other classifications they worked with– camera, lighting, and forklift workers – and that a unit composed only of riggers was “truly inappropriate.” The Regional Director disagreed and directed an election in the rigger unit, the union won the election, and Rhino refused to bargain, in order to test the certification and, ultimately have its arguments considered by the D.C. Circuit.

The DC Circuit’s Rhino Rigging Decision

In short, the DC Circuit rejected all of Rhino Riggings’ arguments, finding that “Because a legitimate basis exists for excluding non-riggers from the bargaining unit,” it would sustain the Board’s order, in which it held that the company was obligated to bargain with the union for the unit of riggers.

As the Court pointed out, under the Board’s unit determination case law, “two considerations determine the prima facie appropriateness of a proposed unit.”

First, the employees must be “readily identifiable as a group” based on factors such as “job classifications, departments, functions work locations [or] skills. Second, the petitioned-for employees must share a “community of interest.” The Board “weigh[s] all relevant factors on a case-by-case basis” to determine whether a set of employees are sufficiently alike to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit.

Noting that there can in many circumstances be more than one appropriate bargaining unit, the Court reaffirmed that a unit need not be the most appropriate unit, and that under the Board’s overwhelming community of interest standard, for an employer to successfully challenge a petition seeking a unit it considers “underinclusive,” it must demonstrated that the proposed unit is “truly inappropriate” because the excluded employees share an overwhelming community of interest under the standard adopted in Specialty Healthcare.

The Court rejected Rhino’s argument that the “overwhelming community of interest” standard “runs afoul of the Act,” and its contention that even under that standard, the riggers shared an overwhelming community of interest with the other classifications.

What Happens Next?

With the DC Circuit’s decision, a total of eight Circuit Courts have rejected claims that the Board exceeded its authority in Specialty Healthcare and that the standards adopted in it are not supported by the Act.

For employers that were holding out hope that the DC Circuit was going to turn the tide on Specialty Healthcare and reject or redefine the “overwhelming community of interest” standard, the Rhino decision is a setback. It is certainly possible that a Court in another circuit which has not yet passed on Specialty Healthcare could still find that the test is not supported by the Act.

That said, at this point, the most likely way that change will come will be from the Board itself, once a Republican majority is in place, which should be this year. On May 10, NLRB Chairman Miscimarra issued a dissent in Cristal USA, Inc., in which he explicitly articulated his belief that “Specialty Healthcare was wrongly decided.” He went on to note that the unit in certified in Cristal was one he did not believe was an appropriate unit, and that this was concerning to him because it “promotes instability by creating a fractured or fragmented unit.”

As the Board moves to a new Republican majority, there is every reason to believe that the holdings in Specialty Healthcare will be reexamined from the point of view articulated in the Chairman’s dissent in Cristal and other cases.

The NLRB finds that the women’s shoe sales employees at Bergdorf Goodman’s New York Store are not an appropriate unit for bargaining. The Board’s unanimous decision to reverse the Regional Director’s finding that the shoe sales team did constitute an appropriate unit and could have their own vote on union representation comes one week after its decision finding that a unit limited to the cosmetics and fragrance sales employees at a Macy’s in Saugus were an appropriate unit for bargaining. The Regional Directors who issued the Decisions and Directions of Election in Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman each had relied on the Board’s Specialty Health Care decision, which is now often referred to as the “Micro Unit” decision.

The Bergdorf Goodman decision and the Board’s explanation of why a different outcome than the one in Macy’s relies heavily on the record of facts developed by the employer in the representation hearing that took place when the union filed its petition for an election among the women’s shoe sales persons at the Bergdorf Goodman store.  In what is almost certain to create further confusion in both management and labor, the decision in Bergdorf (which was four pages in length in contrast to the 33 page Macy’s decision) reached their decision that the women’s shoe sales persons at Bergdorf Goodman “lack a community of interest,” the Board first acknowledged that the women’s shoes salespersons “share some community-of-interest factors,” their work, a draw against commission pay plan unique in the store and the highest commission rates of any of the store’s employees.

In finding that they did not however share a community-of-interest” under Specialty Healthcare, the Board stated in conclusory fashion that the “boundaries of the petitioned-for unit do not resemble any administrative or operational lines drawn by the Employer.”  It was apparently significant to the Board that the Bergdorf Goodman shoes sales employees were assigned to two different selling areas, Salon shoes and Contemporary shoes, located on different floors of the store and that Contemporary shoes was in part of Contemporary Sportswear, another department.

Reading the decision, which contains summaries of the facts that support a finding that the shoe salespersons share a community-of-interest and those that lead the Board to its conclusion to reverse the Regional Director’s conclusions makes clear how critical a well- developed factual record is in representation proceedings such as this.  However, under the Board’s proposed new election rules, which remain pending and are likely to be adopted in some form before the end of the year, one of the critical changes that the Board is proposing is the elimination of the right to a hearing when a petition is filed to resolve precisely the type of factual questions that the Board says distinguish its decisions in Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman.

The New York Times reported today in its business section in article by Steven Greenhouse, who covers labor matters for the paper, about a convention taking place in Addison. The convention is underwritten by the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, which has been not very quietly backing the “Stand for Fifteen,” movement in its quest for wages of $15 per hour in the fast food field.  It is probably not a coincidence that Addison is just four miles from McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Il.

While most of last week’s focus in labor relations law was on the NLRB’s decision in Macy’s, finding a micro-unit consisting of just the cosmetics and fragrance sales employees at the chain’s Saugus MA store to be an appropriate unit for an NLRB election and collective bargaining, the Times article points to the other side of the coin:  the NLRB’s consideration of whether franchisees and franchisors are joint employers and/or common integrated enterprises. Such findings would likely increase the pressure on and more greatly involve franchisors in union organizing and other claims involving the employees of their franchisees.  With today’s Labor Board, it is a pretty safe bet that the NLRB will be finding more and more joint employer relationships to exist.