Category Archives: National Labor Relations Board

Dust off Those Handbooks: NLRB Restores Sanity to Employment Policies

Contributed by JT Charron, December 27, 2017

Thirteen years ago the National Labor Relations Board issued its decision in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, 343 NLRB 646, which held that facially neutral work rules violated the National Labor Relations Act if employees would “reasonably construe” the rule to restrict the employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the Act. Following that decision, the Board used the “reasonably construe” standard to invalidate even the most well intentioned work rules. See e.g., T-Mobile USA Inc., April 29, 2016 (finding that employer’s policy requiring employees to maintain a positive work environment violated the NLRA).

On December 14, in The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB 154, the Board overturned Lutheran Heritage and articulated a new test for evaluating the validity of facially neutral work rules. In place of the unworkable “reasonably construe” standard, the Board introduced a balancing test for analyzing facially neutral work rules. Under the new standard, 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.” (emphasis in original).

Workplace investigation

Examining Documents

Utilizing this standard, the Board reversed the administrative law judge’s decision that Boeing’s no-camera rule violated the NLRA. Instead, it found that the employer’s legitimate business reasons for the policy — protecting proprietary information and national security interests — outweighed any potential Section 7 violation. The Board also articulated three broad categories of work rules that would result from the new balancing test:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”

Boeing is a big win for employers and represents a clear change in the Board’s attitude towards work rules. While only time — and additional Board decisions — will tell, the new standard should provide “far greater clarity and certainty” to employers in drafting workplace policies. Additionally, employers may want to consider taking a second look at policies previously removed and/or revised in the wake of Lutheran Heritage and its progeny. Finally, as we head into 2018, employers should evaluate all workplace policies in light of the Board’s new balancing test and be prepared with strong justifications for any policies that have the potential to infringe on an employee’s rights under the Act.

2017 Ending With A Bang: Obama Era NLRB “Micro Unit” Ruling Reversed

Contributed by Jeffrey Risch, December 22, 2017

2017 is coming to an end, and with somewhat of a Bang! for labor relations moving forward under Trump’s NLRB.  In a matter involving PCC Structurals, Inc. and the Intern’l Assoc. of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (19-RC-202188), the NLRB this month overruled its 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934, and reinstated the traditional community-of-interest standard for determining an appropriate bargaining unit in union representation cases.  The essence of the 2017 decision is that the National Labor Relations Act mandates that the NLRB must evaluate, in each and every case, whether the group of employees a union seeks to represent constitutes a unit that is “appropriate” for collective bargaining.

As a reminder… in Specialty Healthcare, the NLRB held that if a union petitioned for an election among a particular group of employees, those employees PRESUMABLY shared a community of interest among themselves.  And so, if the employer took the position that the smallest appropriate unit had to include employees excluded from the proposed unit, the NLRB could not find the petitioned unit inappropriate unless the employer proved that the excluded employees shared an “overwhelming” community of interest with the petitioned-for group.  The practical effect of this ruling made it “next to impossible” for an employer to successfully challenge the union’s petitioned for “micro-unit”.

The Trump NLRB (in a 3-2 party split decision) has now abandoned the “overwhelming” community-of-interest standard stating that “there are sound policy reasons for returning to the traditional community-of-interest standard that the Board has applied throughout most of its history…”

This PCC Structurals case involved a Regional Office’s finding that a petitioned for unit (a “micro-unit”) of approximately 100 welders was appropriate for collective bargaining.  A “micro-unit” is a small and discrete subset of employees at a particular worksite or worksites, which a union seeks to represent.  It is the opposite of a “wall-to-wall unit” that would encompass the majority of an employer’s non-supervisory employees.  Applying Specialty Healthcare’s “overwhelming community of interest” standard, the Regional Director rejected the employer’s contention that the smallest appropriate unit was a wall-to-wall unit of 2,565 employees.

Of course, the more limited that a union defines a petitioned for unit, the less number of employees belong to the unit and the easier it is for the union to “cherry pick” the necessary votes to win an election and get a “foot in the door” of an employer.  We saw this work to the union’s benefit in many cases since Specialty Healthcare (see here).

The Quick Take Away:  Despite this favorable ruling for employers who prefer to remain union-free, it may be temporary due to what political party occupies the White House; and it does not prevent unions from successfully petitioning for smaller units at a place of business that would otherwise meet the “community of interest” standard.  Indeed, smaller units have always been successfully petitioned for by labor unions under this standard.  But, for the time being, big labor may not be able to “cherry pick” a few employees at a time.

You CAN Ask Your Employees To Be Happy! Federal Appeals Court Reins In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, August 17­, 2017

Labor LawMuch has been written and discussed about the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) attack on handbook policies over the past several years. The NLRB has found what many consider to be run-of-the-mill, standard policies that have, for many years, raised no issues or controversy, to be violative of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Last year, the NLRB struck down various policies in a handbook issued by T-Mobile, including one that encouraged employees to be professional and maintain a “positive work environment” in T-Mobile USA, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 16-60284 (5th Cir. 2017). In its decision, the Board reasoned: “[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7 of the [NLRA], out of fear that the [employer] would deem them to be inconsistent with a ‘positive work environment.’” T-Mobile appealed the NLRB’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Specifically, T-Mobile challenged the Board’s determination that the following provisions from its employee handbook violated the NLRA because they discouraged unionizing or other concerted activity protected by the Act. Provision (1) encouraged employees to “maintain a positive work environment”; (2) prohibited “[a]rguing or fighting,” “failing to treat others with respect,” and “failing to demonstrate appropriate teamwork”; (3) prohibited all photography and audio or video recording in the workplace; and (4) prohibited access to electronic information by non-approved individuals.

On July 25, the Fifth Circuit held that the Board erred in finding that a reasonable employee would construe policies (1), (2), and (4) to prohibit protected activity. The Court reasoned:

In this case, where the record does not suggest that the rules have been applied in the context of union or collective activity, the ‘reasonable employee’ is a T-Mobile employee aware of his legal rights but who also interprets work rules as they apply to the everydayness of his job. The reasonable employee does not view every employer policy through the prism of the NLRA. Indeed, ‘[the Board] must not presume improper interference with employee rights.’

The Court did agree with the Board’s finding that a reasonable employee would construe policy (3) to prohibit protected activity. It reasoned that unlike the other policies such as the “workplace conduct” policy and “commitment –to-integrity” policy, the recording policy blanketedly forbids certain forms of clearly protected activity. For instance, it would prohibit an off-duty employee from taking a picture of a wage schedule. Notably, last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a similar NLRB decision on workplace recordings.

Bottom line: This federal appeals court decision in T-Mobile USA Inc. v. NLRB gives employers and their counsel additional basis for defending legitimate personnel policies in the face of numerous NLRB decisions issued over the past several years that have been viewed as an attempt to diminish management’s right to set basic employee standards in the workplace. However, it seems that blanket policies prohibiting workplace recordings continue to require careful wording and business justification.

A Hint of Change: NLRB Allows Employer to Defend Blanket Prohibition on Use of Cameras/Video Recording Devices

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, May 16, 2017

Recently, there has been much discussion about the composition of the five-member board in Washington, D.C., including President Trump’s appointment of Philip Miscimarra as National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Chairman, and the expected shift from pro-labor initiatives – especially in light of the expiring term of the NLRB General Counsel who was appointed by President Obama. The NLRB recently issued an order that may be a sign of things to come.

No Camera

Camera with a red circle and slash over it

On May 5, a divided NLRB denied the NLRB General Counsel’s motion for summary judgment (a request for judgment as a matter of law where there are no disputed facts) against Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (MBUSI), 365 N.L.R.B. No. 67 (May 5, 2017). The General Counsel argued that legal precedent clearly establishes that a company rule prohibiting any use of cameras and video recording devices without prior authorization interferes with employees’ rights to engage in union or protected concerted activity. The General Counsel relied upon the NLRB decisions in Whole Foods Market, 363 NLRB No. 87 , slip op. at 3-5 (Dec. 24, 2015) (in which a similar rule was found unlawfully overbroad) and T-Mobile USA, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 171 , slip op. at 3-5 (April 29, 2016) (same). These decisions state that blanket bans on workplace photography and recordings generally violate the Act.

Mercedes-Benz argued that it should be allowed to show that employees did not interpret the rule to restrict protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that the rule furthers legitimate business interests, including the protection of proprietary and confidential information, the maintenance of safety and production standards, and open communication. These are nearly identical to the arguments that the board rejected in Whole Foods Market. However, this board majority, including Chairman Miscimarra, agreed that the employer should be allowed to present their evidence at a hearing. Interestingly, they relied upon two decisions in which the employer was ultimately found to have violated the NLRA, including the Whole Foods Market decision.

Bottom line: This NLRB order is notable because it shows some flexibility from the NLRB as to work rules and legitimate business interests – in contrast to recent decisions that many viewed to curb management rights. Ultimately, however, the law has not changed (yet) and the Whole Foods Market decision remains intact. Therefore, before disciplining an employee for taking photos or making recordings in the workplace, you must consider whether the employee’s actions constitute protected activity under the NLRA. Employer policies should remain carefully tailored to specify the restrictions and the business reasons for them. We will be monitoring the developments in this case. Stay tuned.

Before You Acquire That Business, Understand the NLRB’s Successor Bar Doctrine

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, April 24, 2017

handshake over contract

Two business people shaking hands over a contract

When a change of ownership occurs for a business that employs individuals who are represented by an incumbent union, the new owner must be aware of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) successor bar doctrine.  It used to be that following a sale or a merger of a business, there was a window of time during which employees, the new employer, or a rival union, could challenge a union’s majority status as representative of those employees. However, in 2011, the NLRB modified the doctrine in UGL-UNICCO Service Co., 357 NLRB No. 76 (Aug. 26, 2011), holding that for stability, the new relationship between the successor employer and incumbent union should be insulated from challenges for a reasonable period of time (6 months if the new employer adopts the previous terms and conditions; 6-12 months if the new employer sets new terms and conditions).

A few weeks ago, a federal appellate court in NLRB v. Lily Transportation Corp. (1st Cir. March 31, 2017), affirmed the revised successor bar doctrine, holding that the NLRB had a sound basis to implement it. The court also held that the NLRB properly applied that revised successor bar doctrine in finding that Lily Transportation unlawfully refused to bargain with a union that represented a group of truck drivers at a newly acquired facility.

Lily argued to the board that less than a month after it took over operations, it received signed statements from a majority of drivers indicating that they no longer wanted to be represented by the union. Lily argued that the successor bar would force a union upon the employees who had clearly rejected it. The NLRB rejected the argument and required Lily to negotiate with the union.

On appeal, Lily challenged the validity of the successor bar doctrine itself. It argued that the NLRB should be required to provide reasoned explanation for the change in precedent. The court rejected the arguments, reasoning:

The greater the number of successor situations with unionized employees, the greater the potential volatility in union-management relationships across the national labor market. The greater the level of that instability, the greater the likelihood of precipitate disruption in litigation challenging union support during the unsettled period with the new employer.

Bottom line: NLRB activism or not, the modified successor bar doctrine has survived the scrutiny of a federal appellate court. Employers must carefully evaluate all potential labor and employment issues prior to the acquisition of any business.

NLRB Decision Reminds Employers to Tread Cautiously Amidst Union Push

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb, April 20, 2017

On April 13, 2017 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) set aside a vote defeating a union organizing campaign and ordered a new election because the workforce could have perceived management’s statements as impermissible promises to provide benefits if they voted down the union (see full decision here).

44905665 - hand put voting paper in ballot box. voting flat conceptDuring a unionizing campaign, management held a meeting in which it advised employees that another facility’s employees received a 12% pay raise the pay period after they rejected union representation. Management explained that the raises were the result of a survey of wages in that geographical area and stated that the company was in the early stages of conducting a similar survey in their area. All of these statements were true.

Management then opined that if the union won the election, any pay raise could take “a whole lot longer” – perhaps 6 months, a year, 18 months, and that there was a “really big chance” that they might not get the raise at all or could end up losing money. Finally, management added that although they were not promising anything, they planned to follow the same process and therefore, a “reasonable man” could expect a 12% increase.

A PowerPoint presentation shown during the meeting stated that the company was not making promises, the wage survey would continue regardless of the election outcome, the collective-bargaining process could result in wages going up or down or remaining the same, and included a hypothetical in which the union won the election and employees received a 12% raise.

The NLRB concluded that despite repeatedly stating that they were not making any promises, management implied that employees would receive a benefit if they defeated the union. Quoting a 1978 decision, the NLRB stated: “it is immaterial that an employer professes that he cannot make any promises, if in fact he expressly or impliedly indicates that specific benefits will be granted.

All employers are prohibited from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees regarding their right to join a union. Prohibited conduct includes:

  • Providing or promising (expressly or implicitly) to provide benefits in an effort to thwart the unionization effort;
  • Withholding benefits that would have been provided absent the unionization campaign;
  • Taking or threatening adverse action for union involvement or sympathies;
  • Questioning employees about their union loyalties or that of their co-workers; and
  • Spying on union activities.

This list is not exhaustive. If you suspect an organizing campaign, exercise extreme caution and seek expert advice immediately.

NLRB Finds Violation for Independent Contractor Misclassification

Contributed by Noah A. Frank, September 22, 2016

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enforces the National Labor Relations Act, the law that allows private sector employees to address the terms and conditions of their employment (e.g., wages, hours, benefits) through collective action. Through a recently released Advice Memorandum, the NLRB expanded its role to include regulating independent contractor relationships.  Pac. 9 Transp., Inc., Advice Mem., No. 21-CA-150875 (NLRB 12/18/2015, released 8/26/2016).

independent-contractorIn Pac 9, multiple unfair labor practice charges were filed, alleging violations of the Act as it related to the company’s relationship with its independent contractor drivers. The NLRB Regional Director sought an opinion from the NLRB General Counsel as to whether the NLRB had jurisdiction and whether a complaint should issue. Recognizing that the NLRB “has never held that an employer’s misclassification of statutory employees as independent contractors in itself violates” the Act’s protection of an employee’s rights, the General Counsel nonetheless recommended that, absent a settlement agreement, the company should be ordered to:

  • cease and desist telling workers that they are independent contractors (rather than employees), and
  • rescind portions of its independent contractor agreements that purport to classify the workers as “independent contractors.”

The General Counsel confirmed that the traditional common law independent contractor test would apply. While no factor is determinative, control was the most important. Other factors include: a distinct occupation or business, direction of work, skill required, providing supplies & equipment, length of the relationship, method of payment, the company’s and worker’s regular businesses, the parties’ belief as to whether they were employee/employer or independent. The General Counsel found it significant that the workers lacked: entrepreneurial opportunity, realistic ability to work for others, ownership or proprietary interest in their work, control over important business decisions, and real investment of capital. Therefore, these factors militated towards an employment relationship.

The Bottom Line:

In a year of NLRB-activism in the non-union workforces (e.g., see our posts on employee handbooks), companies using independent contractors to supplement their workforce must now worry that the NLRB will come after them for a misclassification issue. This is in addition to complying with regulations and tests from the IRS, U.S. and state Departments of Labor, unemployment and worker’s compensation boards, and other agencies regulating the employment relationship. Pac 9 demonstrates that while independent contractor agreements are not the last word in defining the relationship.

Care must be used when engaging individual workers as “independent contractors.” Multiple governmental agencies’ independent contractor tests must be analyzed to confirm that the relationship is both structured and implemented correctly. This includes written contracts, proof of insurance policies, and following good corporate practices. Experienced employment counsel can assist with forming the relationship and ensuring compliance for best practices.