NLRB (Logo)By: Joshua M. Henderson, Esq.

Seyfarth SynopsisA recent federal appeals court decision makes it even more difficult for an employer to withdraw recognition from a union that has lost majority support.  Employers need to be aware of the possibility of union “gamesmanship” when deciding how to proceed.

An employer that withdraws recognition from a union as the exclusive bargaining agent of its employees does so, as the Board and Courts say, “at its peril.” It’s a risky move, one that requires objective evidence that a union has actually lost the majority support among the employees it represents.  And the employer must be correct about the actual loss of majority support or it will face an unfair labor practice charge for refusing to bargain with a union.  Consider it a form of strict liability in the labor-relations context.  But what if the employer has objective evidence that a union has lost majority support, and then the union regains the majority support before the employer withdraws recognition?  Also, if an employer is found to have violated the law under those circumstances, what is the remedy when the union deliberately did not disclose to the employer it had regained majority status?

In Scomas of Sausalito v. NLRB (March 7, 2017), the D.C. Circuit considered these two questions.  The Court upheld the unfair labor practice charge against the employer that withdrew recognition without knowing that the union had regained majority status.  The Court observed that the employees had suffered from “an extended period of Union neglect.”  Thus, the union had not sought to bargain with the employer for over a year, and held no meetings and provided no information to its members for more than a year, but continued to collect dues from them all the while.  Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of employees notified the employer in writing that they no longer wanted the union to represent them.  Two days after being confronted with this news, a union representative notified the employer that the union wanted to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, and worked behind the scenes to persuade six employees to revoke their signatures on the decertification notice that had been given to the employer.  Yet the union never told the employer that these signatures had been revoked, or that (in light of the size of the bargaining unit) this meant the union had in fact not lost majority support.  The Court decried the union’s “gamesmanship” in not informing the employer, but held that under the Board’s Levitz Furniture test (which the Court had approved of in an earlier case), the employer assumed the risk that it was wrong in evaluating majority support.  Because the employer was wrong, it could not lawfully withdraw recognition.

In answer to the second question, however, the Court reversed the Board’s decision that a “bargaining order” was the appropriate remedy. Bargaining orders are reserved for flagrant, deliberate unfair labor practices.  In the Court’s view, the employer was not acting in bad faith when it withdrew recognition from the union.  The evidence showed that the employer did not act in haste.  Rather, it took steps to ensure that the signatures on the petition delivered to it matched those on the employees’ payroll records.  Moreover, the signatures that remained on the petition after the revocation comprised 42 percent of the bargaining unit.  That exceeds the 30 percent threshold for directing an election, whether filed by a union, an employer, or an employee.  The disaffected employees also had filed a decertification election petition with the Board, but withdrew it after their employer withdrew recognition from the union.  Under the circumstances, the Court rejected the Board’s argument that an election was not an appropriate alternative remedy.

Takeaway for Employers:  Under the Board’s current test (which may or may not be reconsidered by a new Republican-majority Board), an employer may withdraw recognition from the union only when there is an actual loss of majority support for the union; as a practical matter, the employer must be absolutely certain that more than half of the employees in the bargaining unit no longer want the union to represent them.  Even then, the union may be able to undermine the employer’s basis for withdrawal and place the employer’s decision in jeopardy.  When faced with an apparent loss of majority support for a union, an employer should seriously consider choosing the safer option of filing an RM petition (a management election petition) with the NLRB to allow the employees an opportunity to vote on whether to oust the union in a formal election overseen by the Board.  [Good-faith uncertainty of majority status could, in some circumstances and under the Board’s current standard, support an internal poll of employees as to their support for the union, but polling requires fastidious attention to procedural safeguards and is fraught with legal risk as well.]

 

Striking  By: Bryan R. Bienias, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the NLRB, holding that the Board lacked substantial evidence to find that the hospital group unfairly preferred nonunion workers when filling nonunion positions.

The National Labor Relations Board may not invalidate employment policies that accomplish legitimate goals in a nondiscriminatory manner “merely because the Board might see other ways to do it.” Such was the message the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit delivered to the Board in Southcoast Hospitals Group v. NLRB, No. 15-2146 (1st Cir. 2017).

The Court ruled that the Board lacked substantial evidence in finding that the hospital group discriminated against union members by giving nonunion workers a hiring preference for nonunion positions. The union’s contract granted union employees a similar preference when applying for union positions. According to Southcoast, the policy was intended to “level the playing field” and stave off staffing complaints by its nonunion workforce.

The Board argued that the policy tilted the playing field too far in favor of nonunion employees, claiming the number of nonunion positions “pales in comparison” to the number of positions covered by the union hiring policy and that nonunion hiring preference covered two facilities, as opposed to the single facility covered by the union policy.

This was not enough, the Court ruled. While the Court acknowledged that the nonunion policy covered more positions than the union hiring policy, union workers were not disproportionately harmed, given that the ratio of covered positions to covered employees was substantially the same under both policies. Likewise, nonunion employees had to compete with workers from two hospitals, as opposed to union workers’ need to compete only with workers from one hospital.

The Court also noted that the Board ignored other aspects of the hiring policies that still leave union members at a comparative advantage, namely that union seniority trumps qualifications for open union positions, while Southcoast is required to choose “the best qualified” candidate for a nonunion position, regardless of seniority.

Employer Takeaway

Employers must often walk a fine line in order to apply different policies to union and nonunion employees in a non-discriminatory manner. However, as the Court in Southcoast makes clear, this does not handcuff employers from attempting to “level the playing field” by giving certain advantages to nonunion employees, so long as the policy does not disproportionately harm union employees and is supported by a legitimate and substantial business justification.

NLRB 2By: Marjorie C. Soto, Esq., Jeffrey A. Berman, Esq., and Mary Kay Klimesh, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Congressional Committee Head Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Subcommittee Chair Tim Walberg (R-MI) ask NLRB General Counsel Griffin to either immediately rescind his January 31 report regarding the purported rights of faculty, students and scholarship athletes, or “step aside as general counsel.”

Yesterday, we reported that Richard F. Griffith, Jr., the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, issued a report titled “General Counsel’s Report on the Statutory Rights of University Faculty and Students in the Unfair Labor Practice Context.” A copy of  yesterday’s Management Alert can be found here.

It did not take long for Griffin’s Report to catch the attention of Congress. Yesterday, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, jointly issued a response to the Report, calling for Griffin to “rescind his memorandum immediately” or  “step aside as general counsel.”   In support of their request, the Representatives jointly stated that the “memorandum puts the interests of union leaders over America’s students, and it has the potential to create significant confusion at college campuses across the nation.”

Even if Griffin refuses to withdraw the Report, it reasonably can be anticipated that the General Counsel appointed by President Trump at the conclusion of Griffin’s appointment in November, or the soon-to-be Trump appointed Board majority, will revisit not only the Report but also the underlying decisions in Pacific Lutheran, Columbia and Northwestern.

NLRB By: Marjorie C. Soto, Esq., Jeffrey A. Berman, Esq., and Mary Kay Klimesh, Esq. 

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a last minute attempt to leave his mark on the NLRB, the Board’s outgoing General Counsel issued a report attempting to expand the rights of university faculty and students, including scholarship athletes under the National Labor Relations Act.

Just months before the conclusion of his four-year term, Richard F. Griffin, Jr., the General Counsel (“GC”) of the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”), issued a report titled “General Counsel’s Report on the Statutory Rights of University Faculty and Students in the Unfair Labor Practice Context.”

The January 31, 2017 Report was issued with the stated intent to serve as a “guide for employers, labor unions, and employees that summarizes Board law regarding NLRA employee status in the university setting and explains how the Office of the General Counsel will apply these representational decisions in the unfair labor practice arena.” The decisions covered by the Report – – Pacific Lutheran University, Columbia University, and Northwestern University–all involved efforts of individuals to obtain representation by a union.

University Faculty

In Pacific Lutheran, the Board established a new test for determining when it would take jurisdiction over religious colleges and universities.  According to the GC, the Board “will…seek redress for unfair labor practices committed by religious schools against individual faculty member discriminatees who the university does not hold out as performing a specific role in creating and maintaining the university’s religious and educational environment.”

As a practical matter, this means that the GC believes that the faculty who are able to seek union representation because they were “not hired to advance the school’s religious purposes,” also are protected by the Act’s prohibition against discrimination for engaging in protected concerted activities. By implication, this may mean that faculty who are hired to advance a school’s religious purposes are not protected.

The GC also provided his analysis of the standard articulated in Pacific Lutheran regarding the managerial status of faculty members.  Specifically, the GC distinguished between managerial faculty (those who “formulate and effectuate management policies by expressing and making operative the decisions of their employer”) and non-managerial faculty (those whose decision-making is limited to “routine discharge of professional duties in projects to which they have been assigned…”).

The GC concluded that, in the unfair labor practice context, a “complaint will not issue against a university if [the Board] determine[s] that an asserted discriminatee is a managerial employee under the Board’s Pacific Lutheran test.”  He added, however, that even when the Board refuses to process a certification petition, it will still conduct an individualized analysis of the discriminatee’s employment position to determine whether that individual exercised sufficient managerial authority to exempt him from the NLRA.

University Students

Student Assistants. Here, the GC briefly summarized the Columbia University decision, stating that the Board “applied the statutory language of the [NLRA] and longstanding common-law principles to settle the issue of statutory coverage for graduate student employees, determining that student assistants are employees under the NLRA.” The GC relied on the 2000 NYU decision to conclude that graduate students met the common-law test of agency because they “‘perform their duties for, and under the control of’ their university, which in turn pays them for those services…” Similarly, the GC applied this precedent to the unfair labor practices context, concluding that, in his opinion, student assistants are well within the ambit of the NLRA and can therefore organize and receive its protections.

Non-Academic University Workers. The GC stated that, as to university students who are performing non-academic university work (e.g. maintenance or cafeteria workers, lifeguards, campus tour guides, etc.), they are “clearly covered by the NLRA and, as with student assistants, [the Board] will analyze unfair labor practice charges involving non-academic student employees accordingly.” In reaching this conclusion, the GC reasoned that the non-academic university worker category presented an easier question than the student assistants in Columbia as, in his opinion, under the common law agency test, there is no issue of whether or not the work performed by the student employee is “primarily educational work.”

Hospital House Staff. With respect to “hospital house staff” (medical interns, residents, and fellows), the GC concluded that they would “continue to be protected as employees under the NLRA, and [the Board] will continue to process unfair labor practice charges involving those employees.”  In reaching this conclusion, the GC reasoned that, just because certain hospital house staff members also happened to be students did not mean that they were exempt from the coverage of the NLRA. He cited the Boston Medical decision, which held that “nothing in the [NLRA] suggests that persons who are students but also employees should be exempted from the coverage and protection of the [NLRA].”

University Football Players. Here, the GC admittedly limits his analysis to the application of the statutory definition of employee and the common-law agency test to find that Division I FBS scholarship football players are employees under the NLRA, and therefore have the rights and protections of that Act. Referring to the Board’s decision in Northwestern, the GC expressly stated that it would be inappropriate for the Report to attempt resolve the sometimes “divisive” questions relating to whether student athletes may organize under the Act.

Conclusion

With Mr. Griffin’s four-year term ending later this year, it is likely that the new GC will want to revisit some or all of the Report. The soon to be Trump-appointed  majority of the Board likely will revisit not only the Report, but also the decisions in Pacific Lutheran, Columbia and Northwestern.

Gavel

By: Ronald J. Kramer, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seventh Circuit  finds employer still obligated to contribute to benefit funds for the life of the CBA even though the employees decertified the union.

Employers often assume that when their employees decertify a union, that any obligations an employer had under the operative collective bargaining agreement would disappear. No union, no contract.  Right?

Wrong! In Midwest Operating Engineers Welfare Fund v. Cleveland Quarry, Case Nos. 15-2628, -3221, -3861, 16-1870 (7th Cir. Dec. 20, 2016), employees in three separate IUOE bargaining units of the Company voted to decertify in 2013.  At the time, the Union and the Company were party to five year collective bargaining agreements expiring in 2015.  The Company assumed the decertification of the Union, which allowed it to set its own terms and conditions of employment, and ended any contractual obligation to contribute to the multiemployer welfare and pension funds (“Funds”).

The Funds sued, and after they were successful in district court the Company appealed. The Seventh Circuit recognized that the collective bargaining agreements were unenforceable as to the Union, but found nevertheless that the Funds had the right under ERISA to bring a suit for delinquent contributions under 29 U.S.C. § 1145.  The Court based its decision on the idea that when the Funds promised to provide a level of benefits to the employees (presumably by allowing the employer to participate in the Funds under the terms of the CBAs), that created a binding contractual promise.  The Court also recognized that the Funds were third-party beneficiaries to the CBAs and thus entitled to enforce them even if the Union could no longer do so.  “[S]o far as benefit law is concerned the employees were still working ‘under the terms of’ the collective bargaining agreement.”

The Seventh Circuit is not alone in finding that an employer’s contractual obligations to participate in multiemployer funds can survive decertification, withdrawals of recognition, and disclaimers of interest. But there is a competing view.  The Ninth Circuit has recognized that when a bargaining unit ceases to exist, be it by decertification or contract repudiation given the existence of a one person bargaining unit, any existing contract becomes void, not voidable, ending the employer’s obligation to contribute to employee benefit plans. Laborers Health & Welfare Trust Fund v. Westlake Development, 53 F.3d 979 (9th Cir. 1995) (contract repudiation); Sheet Metal Workers’ Int’l Ass’n v. West Coast Sheet Metal Co., 954 F.2d 1506 (9th Cir. 1992) (decertification case were the court held “that the renewal contract became void prospectively as of the decertification of the Union”).  Notably, the Seventh Circuit did not address the Circuit split.

Employers lucky enough to have employees decertify prior to contract expiration cannot assume their obligations to the funds necessarily end. Consult counsel before making any rash moves you may live to regret.

NLRB By: Ashley K. Laken, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: NLRB rules that the operators of the Detroit Masonic Temple unlawfully refused to bargain with a union that represented various engineers and maintenance workers at the temple, even though none of the remaining members of the bargaining unit were union members.

NLRB Chairman Pearce and Members Miscimarra and McFerran unanimously ruled that the Masonic Temple Association of Detroit and 450 Temple, Inc. violated the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to bargain with Local 324 of the International Union of Operating Engineers for a successor collective bargaining agreement. Masonic Temple Association of Detroit, 364 NLRB No. 150 (Nov. 29, 2016).

Facts

The Union had represented employees at the temple since approximately 1968. The most recent collective bargaining agreement covering the temple expired in early 2010, and the Association began operating the temple shortly thereafter.  At the time, there were approximately ten members in the bargaining unit, two of whom were dues-paying Union members.  In mid-December 2010, the Union sent the Association a written request to bargain over a new CBA.  The Association did not respond, and in January 2011, the Union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Association for refusing to bargain in good faith.  The parties entered into a settlement agreement, with the Association agreeing to recognize the Union and bargain in good faith as a successor employer, and they met approximately once per month between January 2011 and May 2011.

After the last negotiation session in May 2011, the Union was told that a new unnamed entity would take over management of the temple and that the Union should wait until the changeover to negotiate a CBA with that entity. In the fall of 2011, the Detroit Masonic Temple Theater Company took over management of the Temple, and the Union held one negotiation session with that entity in January 2012.  The Association and the Theater Company ended their relationship in November 2012, and shortly thereafter, 450 Temple Inc. took over management of the temple.

From late 2012 until January 2015, the Union made multiple attempts to restart negotiation discussions, but in January 2015, the President of the Association and 450 allegedly told the Union that because Michigan had become a right-to-work state and there were no longer any Union members working for the temple, he did not feel it necessary to and would not bargain with the Union. In response, the Union filed the unfair labor practice charge at issue in this case.

Board’s Decision

An administrative law judge found that the Association and 450 were a single employer, in part because the Association had 100% ownership of 450 and they operated out of the same office, and no exceptions were filed in response to that ruling. Thus, the Board’s decision did not address this issue.

Regarding the merits of the charge, the Association and 450 argued that they did not violate the Act because the Union was not the exclusive representative of a majority of employees in the bargaining unit, pointing to the fact that none of the employees in the bargaining unit were Union members. The Administrative Law Judge (and the Board) disagreed, observing that an employer may rebut the continuing presumption of an incumbent union’s majority status and unilaterally withdraw recognition only on a showing that the union has in fact lost the support of a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit, and that bargaining unit employees’ union membership status is not determinative of the employer’s obligation to bargain.  In other words, evidence of a desire to withdraw from membership in the union is insufficient proof that the union has in fact lost the support of a majority of the unit.

The Board found that there was no evidence of any action taken by the bargaining unit employees to express their lack of support for the Union, such as a petition to decertify the Union or statements by the employees that they no longer wanted to be represented by the Union. The Board ordered the Association and 450 to bargain with the Union on request and to post a notice to employees.

Employer Takeaway

The decision highlights the fact that there is a distinction between an employee’s desire to be a member of a union and his or her desire to be represented by a union.  Even if the majority of employees in a bargaining unit are not union members, that does not necessarily mean the union has lost its majority support.  Employers that have questions about the status of an incumbent union’s support should connect with their labor attorney to ensure they do not engage in conduct that would run afoul of the Act.

By: Jade M. Gilstrap

In the midst of what appears to be a proliferation of “micro-units,” on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, the NLRB declined to reconsider its decision to certify a unit of 14 service technicians employed by the Buena Park Honda dealership in Buena Park, California. Sonic-Buena Park H, Inc. d/b/a Buena Park Honda, 21-RC-178527.  In doing so, the Board rejected the employer’s argument that additional employees, particularly lube technicians, should be included in the unit, finding the two types of workers did not share “an overwhelming community interest,” necessitating their inclusion in the same unit.

Relying heavily on Specialty Healthcare & Rehab. Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934, 938 (2011), enfd. 727 F.3d 552 (6th Cir. 2013), the majority of the three-member board ruled that the petitioned-for unit of service technicians was appropriate based on an application of the “overwhelming community-of-interest” standard.  As articulated in Specialty Healthcare:

When employees or a labor organization petition for an election in a unit of employees who are readily identifiable as a group (based on job classifications, departments, functions, work locations, skills, or similar factors), and the Board finds that the employees in the group share a community of interest after considering the traditional criteria, the Board will find the petitioned-for unit to be an appropriate unit, despite a contention that employees in the unit could be placed in a larger unit which would also be appropriate or even more appropriate, unless the party so contending demonstrates that employees in the larger unit share an overwhelming community of interest with those in the petitioned-for unit.

Because the facts clearly did not establish that the lube technicians shared an “overwhelming community of interest” with the service technicians, the dealership could not meet this burden. The Board noted that unlike the lube technicians, the service technicians were more skilled, paid substantially higher wages, and required to routinely update and maintain their training and skills, making them “clearly identifiable and functionally distinct.”  Accordingly, the Board held, “[i]n denying review, we find that petitioned-for employees are an appropriate unit and the Employer has not sustained its burden of establishing that any of the disputed classifications, either individually or collectively, share an overwhelming community of interest with the petitioned-for employees such that their inclusion in the unit is required.”

Although board member Philip A. Miscimarra agreed that “the interests of the service technicians [were] sufficiently distinct from the excluded employees and otherwise appropriate for inclusion in a separate unit,” he disagreed with the application of Specialty Healthcare and the “overwhelming community of interest” standard to evaluate whether the petitioned-for unit should be required to include additional employees.  Instead, Member Miscimarra argued that the Board should have applied its traditional principles, believing “bargaining unit determinations should be circumscribed and guided by industry-specific standards where applicable.”

DisciplineBy: Ronald J. Kramer, Esq. & Kaitlyn F. Whiteside, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Board reaffirmed, prospectively, the Alan Ritchey doctrine requiring employers to bargain over discretionary discipline issued to newly organized employees pre-first contract and mandated prospective make-whole relief including reinstatement and back pay for future violations.

The Board in Total Security Management Illinois 1, LLC, 364 NLRB No. 106 (Aug. 26, 2016) reaffirmed its prior decision in Alan Ritchey Inc., 359 NLRB No. 40 (Dec. 14, 2012), requiring employers to bargain over discretionary discipline issued to newly organized employees prior to the execution of a first contract or a separate side letter addressing discipline. Alan Ritchey was previously invalidated by the Supreme Court’s decision in NLRB v. Noel Canning.

Considering the issue de novo, the three-member majority led by Chairman Pearce, who also served as Chairman when Alan Ritchey was issued, reiterated that employers must provide notice and an opportunity to bargain to the union before imposing discipline (with limited exceptions for minor discipline and exigent circumstances).  We previously covered the obligations under Alan Ritchey here.

The majority emphasized the importance of protecting employees’ rights during the pre-first contract phase of the bargaining relationship. Allowing the employer to exercise discretion in imposing discipline during this time would, according to the majority, “demonstrate to employees that the Act and the Board’s processes implementing it are ineffectual, and would render the union…impotent.” Total Security, 364 NLRB No. 106, slip op. at 10.

The Board found that the discharges in Total Security met the standard established in Alan Ritchey for pre-imposition bargaining and that no such bargaining took place.  The Board declined, however, to order retroactive enforcement of its decision, holding that such enforcement would constitute manifest injustice. Id. at 12.

The majority in Total Security also set forth, for the first time, the remedies available for future Alan Ritchey violations.  In addition to standard remedial relief, i.e. cease-and-desist orders, a requirement to bargain, and notice-posting, the Board opined that make-whole remedial relief, including reinstatement and back pay, would also be appropriate. Id.  Where post-violation the parties did bargain and later reached agreement on discipline, the majority indicated the back pay remedy generally would run from the date of unilateral discipline until the date of the agreement to the extent the agreement did not provide for such back pay.  An agreement providing less than full lost back pay and purporting to settle the pre-discipline bargaining violation would be subject to review under the Board’s standards for non-Board settlement agreements if challenged.  In the event the parties, post-violation, bargained in good faith to impasse over the discipline, back pay would run until the date of impasse. Id. at 13.

Such make-whole relief would, however, be subject to an employer’s affirmative defense that the discipline was “for cause” under the Act. The majority’s new “for cause” defense places the burden on the employer, during the compliance phase of the case, to show “(1) the employee engaged in misconduct, and (2) the misconduct was the reason for the suspension or discharge.” Id. at 15.

The burden of proof then shifts to the General Counsel and the charging party to challenge the employer’s showing by demonstrating, for example, disparate discipline for the same behavior or other reasons for leniency. The employer may rebut such evidence by proving that the employee would have received the same discipline regardless.  The ultimate burden of persuasion remains, at all times, with the employer.

In a 25 page dissent longer than the decision itself, Member Miscimarra asserted the majority took a “wrecking ball to eight decades of NLRA case law.” He not only addressed how the majority erred in reaffirming Alan Ritchey, but he also criticized the majority’s creation of the affirmative defense.  Member Miscimarra argued that Section 10(c) of the Act requires the General Counsel to demonstrate the absence of cause in order to find a violation rather than placing the burden on the employer to show cause in order to avoid liability.  Moreover, Member Miscimarra asserted that that cause issue must be addressed as part of the liability phase of the proceedings as opposed to the remedial phase.

The reaffirmation of Alan Ritchey is no surprise, although the provision of a back pay remedy and the new employer burden during the compliance phase to prove a “for cause” defense is.  Given the complaint against the employer here was dismissed as the ruling was prospective in nature, it likely will be some time before this new rule is actually appealed to the courts.

Moving forward, employers negotiating first contracts risk an unfair labor practice finding if they do not comply fully with Alan Ritchey’s bargaining requirements for any discipline that could even arguably be seen as discretionary.

CBA  By: William P. Schurgin, Esq. & Karla E. Sanchez, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Graymont PA, Inc. the Board majority ruled that a unionized employer cannot unilaterally change rules or policies that affect bargaining unit employees even if its collective bargaining agreement contains a broad management rights clause.

In Graymont PA, Inc., 364 NLRB No. 37 (2016), the union had represented a unit of the employer’s employees since the 1960’s.  The most recent bargaining agreement contained a management rights clause that stated that the employer retained:

the sole and exclusive rights to manage; to direct its employees; . . .  to evaluate performance, . . . to discipline and discharge for just cause, to adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures; [and] to set and establish standards of performance for employees . . .

While the agreement was in effect, the employer announced that it was going to implement changes to its work rules, absenteeism policy, and progressive discipline policy.  These rules and policies were not a part of the agreement.  After the employer made the announcement, the union informed it that it wanted to discuss the announced changes. The employer explained to the union that although it had no obligation to bargain over the changes, it was willing to listen to the union.  The employer discussed with the union and made a few revisions to the work rules and absenteeism policy based on the union’s comments.  Nevertheless, the Board found that the employer’s changes to the work rules, absenteeism policy and progressive discipline policy constituted unlawful changes because the employer did not have the right under the agreement to make these unilateral changes.

The Board noted that for purposes of determining whether a collective bargaining agreement allows an employer to make unilateral changes, it applies the “clear and unmistakable waiver” standard.  Under Graymont PA, Inc., to constitute a clear and unmistakable waiver of a union’s right to bargain over changes in policies, procedures and/or work rules, the management rights clause must specifically refer to the types of rules/policies at issue. In other words, a broad management rights clause that provides management with the sole and exclusive right to “manage” and “direct its employees,” “evaluate performance,” “adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures,” and “set and establish standards of performance” does not waive the right of the union, for example, to bargain over changes to an attendance rule or a progressive discipline policy. For such a waiver to be enforceable, according to the Board majority, the management rights clause must specifically refer to rules and regulations related to “discipline”  and  “attendance.”

This Graymont PA decision creates new restrictions on an employer’s ability to rely on a management rights clause to make changes to rules and/or policies without first bargaining with the union. At the same time, it opens the door for unions to file unfair labor practice charges over such changes. In order to evaluate an employer’s right to make unilateral changes in rules, regulations, handbooks or policies, every collective bargaining agreement’s management rights clause will need to be reviewed to determine how specifically it refers to the changes in question.

 

By:  Christopher W. Kelleher, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The NLRB ruled that students who work as teaching assistants at colleges and universities are “employees” under the NLRA and are thus permitted to engage in collective bargaining.

On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University, Case 02-RC-143012, holding that private college and university student assistants — including undergraduates — who perform services in connection with their studies, are “employees” under Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore have the right to bargain collectively.

In doing so, the Board overruled Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), which held that student assistants are not statutory employees. The ruling directly contradicts the Board’s treatment of students under the Act for nearly all of its 80-year history.

Because Section 2(3) does not adequately define the term “employee,” the Board looked to common law agency principles to determine whether student assistants are covered. The Board thus found that even when the economic relationship “may seem comparatively slight” relative to the academic relationship, “the payment of compensation, in conjunction with the employer’s control, suffices to establish an employment relationship[.]” The Board found no compelling statutory or policy considerations to hold otherwise. The decision applies only to private schools and universities.

Member Miscimarra, the Board’s lone dissenter, argued that the relationship between the students and the university is “primarily educational,” and thus does not fit “the complexities of industrial life.” The dissent warned that the Majority disregarded “what hangs in the balance when a student’s efforts to attain [a] … degree are governed by the risks and uncertainties of collective bargaining and the potential resort to economic weapons” such as strikes, slowdowns, lockouts, and litigation.