By: Allen B. Roberts
I wrote the February 2013 version of Take 5 Views You Can Use, a newsletter published by the Labor and Employment practice of Epstein Becker Green. In it, I discuss an alternative view of five topics that are likely to impact employers in 2013 and beyond. One topic involved the potential for labor organizing by pop-up unions in break-out units.
Despite some perceptions of cohesiveness and political acumen, influence and wherewithal following the 2012 election cycle, labor unions represent only about 7.3 percent of the private sector workforce in the United States, and only 6.6 percent of workers are actually union members. When concentrations in certain industries and geographic areas are factored, that leaves entire swaths entirely union-free, or substantially so.
Foreseeably for the next four years, unions will continue to benefit from a National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") that has innovated changes in substantive law and introduced procedures during the past four years that facilitate organizing and restrict the time for responsive employer communications. That advantage has not yet translated into material membership gains by "Big Labor"—although it may still.
However, together with other breakthroughs by way of social media and electronic and physical access to employer premises and communications systems, expanded interpretations of protected concerted activity, and such movements as Occupy Wall Street and grass roots organizations, conventional unions may be eclipsed, if not displaced, by one-off, special purpose organizations formed solely to serve discrete affinity groupings of employees in new bargaining units. If this occurs, it will be enabled by two bedrock principles of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA"), aided by a recent interpretation in case law.
First, notwithstanding the attention given by supporters and critics alike to large, well-financed conventional unions with institutionalized structures and processes, the NLRA defines a "labor organization," capable of winning certification as the exclusive representative of employees, to mean any body that exists, in whole or in part, for the purpose of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work. This means that an outside force, planning and funding offsite meetings and campaigns, is not necessary; something as simple as a homegrown pairing or grouping of workers having common interests or worries could qualify as a labor organization.
Second, with respect to the NLRB's formulation of a unit appropriate for collective bargaining purposes, it is not necessary that the unit be the most appropriate or that it conform to management's organizational structure. Historically, the NLRB has been mindful of its authority to make determinations of the unit appropriate for purposes of collective bargaining, consistent with legislative policy assuring that employees have the "fullest freedom" in exercising statutory rights to organize. If it survives Circuit Court of Appeals challenge on review, an NLRB standard adopted in 2011 could lead to a proliferation of small, fractionated bargaining units; it would place the burden on an employer contesting the appropriateness of a labor organization's preferred bargaining unit to show that employees excluded from the unit sought by the petitioning labor organization share an "overwhelming community of interest" with another readily identifiable group. If a readily identifiable group exists based on such factors as job classification, department, function, work location, and skills, and the NLRB finds that the employees in the group share a community of interest, the petitioned-for unit will be an appropriate unit, despite an employer's contention that employees in the unit could be placed in a larger unit that also would be appropriate—or even more appropriate.
Much as the NLRB's approach has been perceived to benefit large, established unions, it may not be surprising if employee groups, newly aware of the NLRB's outreach and enlargement of rights to engage in protected concerted activity through social media and other means, realize also that they are capable of becoming homegrown, single-purpose labor organizations with authorization from the NLRB to define a bargaining unit by its lowest common denominator—or to invade and fractionate existing bargaining units currently represented by Big Labor.
For more Take 5 Views You Can Use, read the full version here.