Tag Archives: labor unions

Health Care Workers and Labor Unions: The COVID “Bump” and the New Administration’s Efforts to Unionize More Workers

Contributed By Beverly Alfon and Michael Hughes, April 28, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Allows Unions to Make Inroads with Health Care Workers

For health care workers, the issues of staffing, wages and benefits are typically what unions have focused on in their organizing campaigns. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues are heightened with the added urgency of worker safety. The realities created by the pandemic have and will likely continue to make their impact on health care workers – even prompting some who never may have considered union representation – to reconsider their position. For example, in September 2020, nurses at a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, voted to become unionized. Yes!  North Carolina, a traditionally red, anti-union state. The union won 70% of the vote. The nurses cited issues related to PPE, testing and exposure notification inconsistencies.

Unions have certainly taken notice of this opportunity to organize and are seizing it. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2028 some 3.4 million new jobs will be added in health care and social assistance. The sector will account for about a third of all new employment in the U.S. by that time. In August 2020, a Colorado state inspection revealed that understaffing led to a patient death at a Denver area hospital. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local union – which does not represent the employees at the hospital – nonetheless engaged in an aggressive campaign alleging unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company.

Health care workers who are already unionized – who in the past may have been complacent about union objectives and work issues – also appear to have become galvanized and willing to take action, including voting to strike. At the end of 2020, health workers in multiple states went on strike over staffing issues and pay. 

  • In Chicago, about 6,000 certified nursing assistants and food service and housekeeping employees at 64 nursing home facilities called off a planned strike after reaching a tentative agreement with employers for higher base pay, hazard pay, adequate personal protective equipment and paid sick days related to COVID-19.
  • In Providence, Rhode Island, about 100 nursing assistants and maintenance workers and other staff at a nursing home began a strike over demands for mandatory minimum staffing levels and pay increases. The strike followed a series of protests following outbreaks of coronavirus in nursing homes in Rhode Island and across country exposed staffing shortages. 
  • Near Philadelphia, nurses went on strike at a hospital. A month later, the owner of the hospital announced a labor agreement with the nurses’ union that gave nurses “a voice in discussions on staffing” while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions. 
  • In Chicago, nearly 700 caregivers walked off the job at 11 nursing homes, apparently triggered by the company’s discontinuance of hazard pay during the pandemic. A tentative agreement was reached after a 12-day strike, including significant wage increases, pandemic pay increase, additional five days of COVID-19 related sick time, and significant PPE guarantees and protections.
  • In Albany, New York, hundreds of nurses went on strike, citing issues wages and benefits, understaffing, and the hospital’s handling of the pandemic.
  • In Connecticut, nursing home workers continue to inch towards a major strike with initial union votes at 33 facilities overwhelmingly favoring a strike.

Clearly, COVID-19 is strengthening organized labor’s appeal and lengthening its reach. Couple that with a pro-labor agenda in the Biden administration and in Congress, and we are staring at a galvanized labor movement.

The Pro-Union Agenda at the Biden Administration and the National Labor Relations Board

On the eve of the presidential election in 2020, nominee Joe Biden vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Upon being sworn in, President Biden wasted no time in making headway toward that promise. On his very first day in office, President Biden fired the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel, Peter Robb. The NLRB GC determines which cases are prosecuted at the labor board, and in so doing, sets policy initiatives and labor law enforcement guidance. Robb’s term was not set to expire until November 2021, and his firing marked the first time in history that an incoming President fired the sitting NLRB GC without letting him serve out his term. (The next day President Biden also fired the NLRB’s Deputy GC). Union leaders had called for Biden to sack Robb over their disagreement with Robb’s policy prerogatives and what they perceived as an anti-union agenda. Within days, the acting NLRB GC appointed by President Biden issued memorandums reversing many of Robb’s policy directives—unsurprisingly all of those reversals favored labor unions (but not necessarily workers). Among the policy provisions established by the acting GC’s newly issued guidance memos are provisions giving unions wider protection against accountability when they fail to properly represent workers’ rights; allowing unions to hide certain dues information from workers; and allowing unions to limit the time frame for workers to rescind a dues authorization.

In the coming months, the makeup of the 5-member NLRB (the body that makes final determinations in cases of alleged unfair labor practices and union representation issues) will also swing from its current Republican majority, to a Democratic majority, as there currently is one vacant seat waiting to be filled, and another seat will expire on August 27, 2021. With these changes (at the GC and board levels) it is a certainty that the NLRB will begin a period where its policy and enforcement priorities make it easier for unions to organize unrepresented employees; give unions additional ammunition and leverage in organizing campaigns and at the bargaining table; and remove employer tools to resist or counter union organizing.  

Congress Advances Union-Friendly Legislation

Not to be outdone by the Executive branch, Congress also is moving quickly to appease its labor union constituents, mainly through the re-introduction of the Union-friendly, “PRO Act.” We recently wrote about the nuts and bolts of that pending legislation, which has passed the House of Representatives and awaits action by the Senate. Currently, 47 of the 50 Democratic senators support the PRO Act, and labor unions and other organizing groups have set out to bombard the remaining three Democratic senators with an onslaught of demonstrations, phone calls, and other pressure tactics, in order to bring them to heel. The PRO Act would nearly completely re-write labor law as we know it, with an aim to making it a near impossibility for any organization to resist a union organizing campaign. Among the many drastic changes to long-standing labor law, the PRO Act would:

  • Outlaw Right-to-Work laws;
  • Remove any and all restrictions on Union strike activities (including removal of restrictions against intermittent strikes, partial strikes, and slow-down strikes);
  • Allow unions to strike and boycott directly against entities they have no labor dispute with, in order to pressure that entity to stop dealing with a company the Union does have a dispute with;
  • Impose penalties against employers who commit unfair labor practices (up to $50,000 for a first offense);
  • Erode the sanctity of secret ballot elections, allowing the Union alone to name the means and manner of election (mail ballot, off-site election, electronic election) and providing for a second-chance “card-check” election, if the Union loses and alleges an unfair labor practice;
  • Ban an employer’s ability to withdraw recognition from a union, even if 100% of all employees sign a petition saying they no longer want the union; and
  • Many more pro-union provisions.

While the PRO Act is not yet law (and likely will not be enacted wholesale, unless the Senate scuttles the filibuster), it is increasingly likely that certain portions of the PRO Act will find their way in to other legislation in the upcoming legislative sessions. Again, all of these developments are for one simple purpose: making it easier for unions to organize new groups of workers. As noted above, health care facilities, especially including long-term care facilities, have been a special focal point for many union organizing drives of late, with savvy union leaders leaning on the COVID-19 pandemic to make inroads with employees in the industry. A union-friendly Administration, NLRB, and Congress will only aid and embolden the SEIU and other unions seeking to organize health care workers to redouble their efforts.

What to Do?

  1. Get your union avoidance plan in place.
  2. Identify who your “supervisors” are (as defined by the National Labor Relations Act) and get them trained on identifying and dealing with union organizing. A “supervisor” cannot be represented by a union. They are also agents of your company, so training is key. They should be directed on what their role should be in avoiding union organizing and what they can and cannot do and say in the event that union organizing begins.
  3. Review policies for clarity, perceived unfairness, and employee relations. A union will often focus employees on (real or perceived) unfair policies or unequal implementation of work rules.
  4. Benchmark wages and benefits. A union will often promise more money. So, it is best to be prepared with a response.
  5. Identify employee relations problems now and deal with them before employees turn to a union. Get feedback from the group of employees who are vulnerable to union organization. Sometimes, it is as simple as tweaking a supervisor’s management-style.
  6. Train management on positive employee relations. Your supervisors need to know about the importance of providing regular feedback to employees and maintaining open communication with them.
  7. Get a communications plan in place in the event that union organizing begins or has begun.
  8. In light of current union tactics of staging demonstrations and strikes, even in support of organizing efforts, it also is advisable to have a comprehensive strike plan in place, especially once organizing efforts become known.

Being aware of the potential threat of union organizing at your workplace is not enough. Far too often employers are surprised when union organizing begins or a formal petition for recognition is filed. Assessment and planning are necessary now so that if the need arises, a response can be timely, effective, and within the parameters of the National Labor Relations Act. 

Union Friendly PRO Act Reintroduced in Congress: Seeks to Revolutionize Labor Law Throughout the U.S.

Contributed by Michael Hughes, February 8, 2021

“Union” in block letters

The mis-named Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) was reintroduced in the U.S. Congress on February 4, 2021. The PRO Act, which originally was introduced in 2019 and passed the House of Representatives in 2020, would completely change the landscape in the labor-relations world. You may recall that our recent blog post advised that reintroduction of the PRO Act likely was a priority of the Biden Administration and the revamped U.S. Congress.

Billed by Democrats as legislation to support workers’ rights, the PRO Act is less worker-friendly than Union-friendly. If passed, the PRO Act would overhaul the National Labor Relations Act and make it easier for unions to organize more employees, remove most restrictions on union strikes and other union pressure tactics, weaken employers’ ability to resist unionization, and provide massive fines and penalties on employers who violate the law. While the bill’s wholesale passage in the Senate may be unlikely (unless Democrats move to eliminate the filibuster), many of its terms likely will find their way into other pieces of legislation.

Among the more drastic provisions of the proposed legislation are the following:

Organizing / Elections

  • Expands which workers unions can organize (to include many who currently are considered independent contractors and supervisors)
  • Erodes the secrecy of employee ballots and increases risk of fraudulent elections by giving the union the sole determination over the manner the election is to be conducted (mail ballot, electronic, off-site or on-site elections)
  • Allows unions who lose elections, if they allege an unfair labor practice by the employer affected the election, to resort to an after-election card check to win representation rights

Collective Bargaining

  • Bans all state right-to-work laws
  • Provides for “interest arbitration” if the employer and union cannot quickly agree to terms of an initial collective bargaining agreement—meaning a slate of arbitrators would decide wages, benefits and other contract terms
  • Allows “hot cargo” agreements, where unions can demand that employers do not do business with other, non-union companies
  • Bans employers’ ability to withdraw recognition from a union, even upon evidence that all employees want the union out

Strikes / Picketing / Construction Sites

  • Allows “secondary” strikes and boycotts, meaning the union can strike against employers/companies that it does not have a dispute with, in order to force them to stop doing business with non-union companies (this would allow ANY and ALL picketing at construction sites, without regard to reserved gates, effectively allowing unions to halt construction)
  • Allows partial strikes, intermittent strikes, and slow-down strikes
  • Allows strikes in jurisdictional disputes between rival unions
  • Removes all time limits on picketing for recognition
  • Bans employers’ ability to lockout employees, unless they go on strike first

Damages / Fines

  • Civil fines up to $50,000 for any unfair labor practice (doubled for repeat offenders)
  • Requires employers to re-hire employees, pending resolution, if union alleges discharge was unlawful
  • In discharge cases, in addition to back pay, would allow for front pay, liquidated damages (2x amount of back pay), consequential and punitive damages
  • $10,000 daily fine for non-compliance with an NLRB order
  • PERSONAL liability for company directors and officers
  • Provides employees with the right to sue employers in court, even if the NLRB dismissed their charge

As stated, currently it is unlikely that the PRO Act would overcome a senate filibuster by Republicans to be passed wholesale. We will monitor any developments in this legislation, or attempts to include certain aspects of the PRO Act within other legislation and keep employers informed on this blog. Please note, the Biden administration also is moving quickly to appease its labor union constituents in other ways. Aside from reintroduction of the PRO Act, on his very first day in office, President Biden fired NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb, whose term was not set to expire until November 2021. In his tenure, Mr. Robb pressed policies that labor leaders saw as too employer-friendly. The NLRB Acting General Council named by President Biden already has issued guidance overturning several policy provisions previously enacted by Robb. President Biden also nominated Boston Mayor, Marty Walsh, former head of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council and Local Union President as Secretary of Labor. Mr. Walsh appears headed for confirmation.

The Duty to Bargain During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, March 31, 2020

Scales of Justice, Weight Scale, Balance.

Businesses with a unionized workforce need to consider whether their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic constitute unilateral changes under existing work terms and conditions. An employer’s duty to bargain in good faith with its employees’ union encompasses many obligations, including the duty to not make certain changes to work terms and conditions without bargaining with the union. While a union is not likely to bring an unfair labor practice charge against an employer for “benevolent” unilateral changes, a union generally has a solid basis to bring an unfair labor practice charge against an employer that initiates adverse actions such as furloughs and layoffs, without notice and an opportunity to bargain. 

Recognizing the “unprecedented situation” created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel (GC) issued a memorandum on March 27 to address its impact on the duty to bargain. The memorandum does not direct the NLRB’s regional offices to take any specific action, but it does summarize cases in which the Board previously considered the duty to bargain during emergencies. The cased cited in the memorandum involve unilateral changes ranging from implementation of a flu prevention policy to layoff/facility closure prompted by an abrupt reduction in an employer’s business volume. 

Bottom line

  • You need to evaluate the language of your CBA with the union in order to determine what is already covered by the agreement (including your Management Rights clause) to support the actions that you take in response to the pandemic.
  • If you make unilateral changes such as furloughs/layoffs – that are not already supported by the CBA – you must be ready to demonstrate that “economic exigencies compel[led] prompt action.” Currently, any exception to the duty to bargain before implementing unilateral change is limited to “extraordinary events which are an unforeseen occurrence, having a major economic effect requiring the company to take immediate action.”     
  • Keep in mind that failure to bargain with the union over the effects of the company’s decision to take the unilateral action, can also lead to another violation of the NLRA.

NLRB Gives Gift To Employers: Modifies Obama Board’s “Quickie Election” Rule

Contributed by Jeffrey A. Risch, December 16, 2019

the word “union” in black and white

On December 13, 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued notice of new regulations designed to materially change what is commonly referred to as the “Quickie Election” Rule. The new regulations, set to take effect on April 16, 2020, will materially help employers combat labor unions in the private sector by primarily providing more time to react to and educate the workforce on the “Good, Bad & Ugly” of what union representation actually means to workers.  

As a brief reminder… the “Quickie Election” Rule is a set of unprecedented regulations that the Obama NLRB published in 2014, and went into effect in 2015. The primary effect of the “Quickie Election” Rule limited the amount of time an employer had to respond to a petition filed by a labor union seeking to represent its workers, and oppose the union’s attempt to unionize the workforce. There were other significant pieces to the “Quickie Election” Rule, including, but not limited to: requiring employers (not unions) to submit a position statement on all issues the employer wanted or needed to raise as a result of the union’s proposed bargaining unit and the election in general – within 7 calendar days after receipt of the petition – and, any issues not timely raised are deemed waived; setting material limitations on issues to be considered in any pre-election hearing and pushing any review of objections related to the election to a post-election hearing (after votes are opened and counted); and eliminating any stay of certifying an election’s results in order to allow time for the NLRB to consider a request for review filed from a Regional Director’s Order directing an election to proceed in the first place.

In essence, the official vote to “go union” or not, went from approximately 42 days to around 21 days from the filing of the union’s petition, under the “Quickie Election” Rule, while tying the hands of employers to mount a comprehensive defense strategy along the way. With the changes found in the new regulations set to go into effect on April 16, 2020, the process will return to the days when employers had greater rights and abilities to fight against labor unions aiming to organize and represent their workers. In short, the new regulations include the following material changes from the current rules:

·       The pre-election hearing must be held within 14 business days from the filing of a petition (up from the current within 8 calendar days requirement);

·       Legal statements of position that identify issues and problems with any petition must be filed within 8 business days after service of the notice of hearing (up from the current within 7 calendar days requirement), and the union must file a formal response to a statement of position filed by an employer at least 3 business days before a scheduled pre-election hearing;

·       The pre-election hearing can include, once again, the litigation of disputes involving voter eligibility as well as the size/scope of the bargaining unit (not just the issue of whether valid and lawful representation exists);

·       The employer and the union can, once again, file post-hearing briefs  to any pre-election or post-election hearing within 5 business days from the close of the hearing;

·      Employers will be allowed more time to educate their workforce on union representation and mount a more robust counter-organizing campaign of their own in light of a new rule that provides that absent the parties’ agreement, a Regional Director “normally” will not schedule an election less than 20 business days after the Regional Director directs an election;

·       Employers will be permitted, once again, to file a Request for Review by the NLRB of any Regional Director’s adverse Order directing an election, within 10 business days of such Order, and if the request is pending at the time of the election then the ballots cast would not be opened while the NLRB resolves the controversies raised in the Request for Review;

·       Regional Directors will be prohibited from certifying results of any election while a Request for Review is still pending or at any time prior to the time a post-election request for review can be filed; and

·       Employers will generally be provided more time to provide voter eligibility lists and information to the NLRB after the Regional Director issues a direction of election.

In issuing notice of the new regulations, NLRB Chairman John F. Ring (R) stated, “These are common sense changes to ensure expeditious elections that are fair and efficient. The new procedures will allow workers to be informed of their rights and will simplify the representation process to the benefit of all parties.” Sole Democratic Board Member Lauren McFerran (D) vehemently opposed the changes. There is no doubt these Trump-era NLRB election rules will be opposed greatly by any future Democratic controlled NLRB. However, for now (starting in April 2020) employers will be in a much stronger position to successfully dispose of or counter union petitions seeking to represent workers in the private sector.