NLRB (Logo)By: Glenn Smith, Esq.  & Kaitlyn F. Whiteside, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a unanimous decision, a three-member panel of the NLRB found that a cab company violated the NLRA by changing the length of the waiting period for employee health insurance from one year to sixty days.

On May 16, 2017, Chairman Miscimarra, Member Pearce, and Member McFerran upheld an Administrative Law Judge’s determination that Western Cab Company violated Section 8(a)(5) of the NLRA by failing to give notice and an opportunity to bargain to the United Steelworkers during its 2014 implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

According to the Board, because the ACA only prohibits waiting periods for employee health insurance of longer than ninety days, the employer had discretion over whether to reduce its one-year waiting period to “a 60-day waiting period….a 30- or 90-day waiting period, or even no waiting period at all.” Therefore, the employer owed the Union notice and an opportunity to bargain over the waiting period and any other aspects of the law that gave the employer discretion in compliance, such as the notice and enrollment and even the overall type of health insurance.

The reality for employers, which was not discussed by the Board, is that quite often employers are forced to attempt to make significant changes very quickly in order to comply with a newly effective law. According to the Board, these changes must be made while also navigating the legal obligation to provide notice and an opportunity to bargain to the Union over the implementation.  This obligation requires that employers have a robust and sophisticated understanding of the requirements of the law, and those aspects that may be discretionary, with enough advance time to allow for notice and bargaining with the Union.

Here, Western Cab received notice from its insurance provider in December 2013 that as of January, the ACA would require a significant shortening of Western Cab’s current waiting period, which at the time was one year. According to testimony before the ALJ, it was the insurance provider that mistakenly indicated that the waiting period under the ACA had to be sixty days.  As a result, Western Cab may not have even been aware when it implemented the sixty-day rule that it had made a discretionary decision.

Although he joined the majority, Chairman Miscimarra took the opportunity in a footnote to re-emphasize that “employers’ compliance with the NLRA should not frustrate their compliance with the complex array of non-NLRA legal obligations that confront them.” Further, in his view, the question is not simply whether the employer had any discretion in implementing the law.  Rather, the Chairman would focus on “whether the actions are similar in kind and degree to what the employer did in the past.”

In addition to finding a violation for failure to bargain over the ACA implementation, the panel also found the employer violated the Act by failing to give pre-imposition notice and an opportunity to bargain over discipline issued during negotiations for a first contract with the Union as required in the Board’s recent Total Security Management decision.  For more information on this disciplinary bargaining obligation, see our September 29, 2016 blog post here.  In a footnote, Chairman Miscimarra reiterated his disagreement with Total Security Management, a telling reminder that reversal may be in the cards should an appropriate case come before the Board when and if President Trump’s nominees to the NLRB are confirmed.

The key takeaway here is that for employers with unionized workforces, any change in terms and conditions of employment, whether positive or negative, requires notification and bargaining with the union.

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.]

 

By: Alison C. Loomis, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Administrative Law Judge found that the NLRA preempts part of Wisconsin’s right-to-work law that restricts employers from deducting union dues directly from employees’ paychecks.

If you are an avid reader of our blog, you will undoubtedly recall that approximately two years ago, Wisconsin became the then-25th right-to-work state when it enacted legislation that made union security agreements requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment illegal. In addition, the law also made it an unfair labor practice for an employer to collect dues from workers’ wages unless an employee directed it to do so by written notice, which was revocable with 30 days notice.

Almost two years to the day that the legislation was enacted, Administrative Law Judge Charles J. Muhl, a former NLRB attorney, found that the Wisconsin law was partially preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. Metalcraft of Mayville Inc. and District Lodge 10, International Association of Machinists, Case No. 18-CA-178322.

The parties’ collective bargaining agreement contained a dues check-off provision and was set to renew in June 2016, at which point, the contract would become subject to the Wisconsin right-to-work law. The employer initiated communications with the union in April to discuss the Wisconsin law’s impact on the contract.  The employer informed the union of its belief that the dues-checkoff provision would be unlawful once the law applied.  Two days prior to the renewal date of the contract, the employer informed the union that it would not enforce this provision.  The employer then sent several letters to employees intended to answer questions about the contract renewal, the right-to-work law, and the nature of paying union dues going forward.

A few days after the employer stopped remitting dues, the union filed a grievance, claiming that the employer violated section 8(a)(5) the NLRA by unilaterally changing working conditions by rescinding the dues-checkoff clause of their contract without bargaining. In response, the employer argued the Wisconsin right-to-work law required that it rescind its dues check-off.

In the decision, the ALJ concluded that the NLRA allowed Wisconsin the authority to “enact prohibitions on union security” but “preempts the state’s attempt to regulate dues checkoff.”  Specifically, the ALJ found that because the NLRA requires dues authorization forms be terminated with a year’s notice and the Wisconsin law minimizes the window to a 30-day period, “[t]he two provisions are directly at odds with one another” and, accordingly, “the provisions of Wisconsin’s law addressing that topic are preempted.”

The ALJ found that the employer violated the NLRA when it stopped collecting union dues and found several other labor violations. The decision ordered the employer to resume checking off and transferring dues to the union and to make the union whole for any payments that the employer missed.

Takeaway:

Although the Presidential election has led many to expect the labor law pendulum to swing quickly back toward a more pro-employer perspective, this decision reflects the reality that no such transition has yet occurred at the Board.

Striking  By: Brian Stolzenbach, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers should not presume that they are permitted to stop paying for employees’ medical benefits once they go out on strike. In a 2-1 decision, the NLRB recently held that — at least in some circumstances — medical benefits may be “accrued” simply by virtue of being employed.  If so, then an employer may not stop those benefits during strike.

Nearly 70 years ago, the NLRB confirmed that an employer has no obligation to finance a strike against itself by paying wages to employees during a strike. See General Elec., 80 NLRB 510 (1948).  No one ever said that strikes are supposed to be painless for strikers or that they entitled to be paid not to work.  Decades after the General Electric decision, it has become very common for employers to provide their employees with medical insurance, in addition to wages, as a form of compensation.  Many (perhaps most) employers assume that the old axiom extends to this form of compensation, as well:  they believe they can never be required to continue paying for their employees’ medical insurance during a strike.  Alas, in Hawaiian Telcom, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 36 (Feb. 23, 2017), the NLRB held otherwise.  Over an impassioned dissent by Acting NLRB Chairman Phil Miscimarra, the two Democrat Members of the Board concluded that this is actually a question of contract interpretation.  Reviewing the collective bargaining agreement that had expired prior to the strike, the NLRB observed that the contract provided medical insurance for all employees covered by the agreement — with no exceptions, save for termination of employment.  Strikers, of course, have not terminated their employment, so the NLRB decided that medical benefits could not be stopped during the strike, even though the collective bargaining agreement had expired.

What does this mean for employers? At the very least, it means that they should be very familiar with the precise terms of the collective bargaining agreement and other documents (benefit plan documents, SPDs, etc.) that govern their medical benefits for organized employees.  They should consider how these documents may be interpreted and whether they may be in need of revision.  Of course, this is a complex area of overlapping labor relations and employee benefits law, and an employer may not lawfully be able to make the changes it desires, for various reasons.  Nevertheless, it is better to understand the potential obstacles and to make a considered decision about dealing with them well before a work stoppage looms on the horizon, rather than scrambling to deal with the issue during a strike or (worse) finding out five years after cutting off benefits during a strike that the decision to do so was unlawful, as the employer did in Hawaiian Telcom.

By: Kyllan B. Kershaw, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: This weekend Kentucky became the 27th state to pass right-to-work legislation, eliminating the right of unions to collect compelled-dues payments and providing a significant boost to employers hoping to operate union-free.

On Saturday, January 7th, Kentucky’s Governor signed Kentucky House Bill 1 into law, making Kentucky the 27th state in the country to adopt right-to-work legislation and the last state in the South to pass such a law. The new legislation is effective immediately but carves out an exemption for existing collective bargaining agreements.

The law bars making union membership a condition of employment and allows workers in union shops to opt out of paying union dues without fear of losing their jobs. The law also prohibits public employees from going out on strike.

Kentucky House Bill 1 was introduced on January 3 and fast-tracked by Kentucky House Republican leaders, passing by a vote of 58-39 on January 5th and pushed through the full State Senate in a special Saturday session on January 7th. A major factor motivating Kentucky Republicans who introduced the law is that Kentucky’s unemployment figures lag behind those of neighboring right-to-work states such as Indiana and Wisconsin. Likewise, while Kentucky’s overall union membership rates remain on par with the U.S. average, private-sector union membership rates in Kentucky are slightly above the national average. For example, in 2016, 11 percent of employees in Kentucky belonged to a union (right around the national average of 11.1%), while Kentucky’s private-sector employee membership rates hovered slightly above 8 percent, higher than the national average of 6.7 percent.

Overall, right-to-work states are considered more favorable to employers. Specifically, employers in non-right-to-work states experience a higher density of unionization and increased organizing efforts. Likewise, employers in non-right-to-work states often experience greater employment costs associated with doing business. For example, employers in non-right-to-work states: (a) generally pay higher wage rates and benefits to employees, regardless of the employer’s union status; and (b) are subject to increased government regulation of employment, including pro-employee laws and onerous regulations, as unions in these states often possess greater political capital and have additional lobbying capabilities as a result of compelled-dues payments.

Kentucky House Bill 1 follows the 6th Circuit’s recent affirmation of the rights of Kentucky counties to pass right-to-work legislation based on Kentucky’s home-rule powers. See UAW v. Hardin Cty., Docket No. 16-5246 (6th Cir. Nov. 18, 2016). Not surprisingly, Kentucky House Bill 1 restricts the right of local governments to enforce an ordinance contrary to the provisions of the new state law.

Kentucky’s right-to-work legislation comes as Republicans control the state government in Kentucky for the first time in nearly a century. States such as Missouri and Iowa may follow Kentucky’s lead, where Democrats suffered losses in November and state lawmakers have expressed interest in pursuing such laws and creating more employer-friendly climates.

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.

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: Adam J. Smiley, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: NLRB General Counsel releases an Advice Memorandum finding that the misclassification of independent contractors amounts to a standalone violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.

On August 26, 2016, Richard Griffin, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), released an Advice Memorandum outlining his legal theory that the misclassification of employees as independent contractors constitutes a standalone violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) because, in his view, the misclassification interferes with and restrains the exercise of Section 7 rights.[1]

In Pac. 9 Transp., Inc., the Employer used independent contractor drivers to perform services at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  In late 2012, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters began a “non-traditional” organizing campaign of the drivers, and as part of the campaign began filing individual wage and hour claims with the California State Labor Commissioner on behalf of drivers, claiming that the Company had misclassified them as independent contractors.  On November 13, 2013, the Teamsters filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Company (21-CA-116403), alleging that the Employer unlawfully threatened and interrogated certain drivers.  In response to the charge, the Company argued that the Region lacked jurisdiction because the drivers were independent contractors.  The Region dismissed this argument and determined that the drivers were statutory employees, and ultimately concluded that the Company had violated the NLRA.

On April 24, 2015, the Teamsters filed another charge (21-CA-150875), alleging that the Company’s purported misclassification of its drivers, by itself, violated Section 8(a)(1).  The Advice Memo regarding this charge concludes that, “the Region should issue a Section 8(a)(1) complaint alleging that the Employer’s misclassification of its employees as independent contractors interfered with and restrained employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.”

As we discussed in a previous blog post, the General Counsel has recently focused on misclassification issues.  While this Advice Memo focuses on a single case, it appears that the General Counsel seeks to apply his theory more broadly and involve the Board in other disputes regarding independent contractors.  And the extraordinary remedy suggested by the General Counsel – which is contained in a closing footnote – instructs the Region to seek an order requiring that the Employer stop referring to the drivers as independent contractors, and “require that the Employer take affirmative action to rescind any portions of its Agreements with its drivers that purport to classify them as independent contractors and to post the appropriate notice.”  In other words, the General Counsel of the NLRB seeks to expand the purview of labor policy to dictate the worker classification decisions of employers.

This novel theory will surely be challenged. The very premise of the General Counsel’s determination that a mistaken classification decision violates Section 8(a)(1) is tenuous and untested.  And even if a court agrees with this concept, Board action is ripe for a preemption challenge, at the very least regarding violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

We’ll keep you posted on future developments on this important issue.

[1] The Advice Memorandum was issued on December 18, 2015, but was not publically released until the underlying unfair labor practice was resolved.

By:  Christopher W. Kelleher, Esq., Mary Kay Klimesh, Esq. & Jeffrey A. Berman, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The National Labor Relations Board issued three important decisions this week that will significantly impact private colleges and universities.

Student Assistants Eligible to Unionize

By a vote of 3 to 1, the Board held that college and university student assistants — including undergraduates — who perform services in connection with their studies, are “employees” under Section 2(3) of the NLRA, and therefore have the right to bargain collectively. Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90. 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 nearly 80-year treatment of students under the Act.

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.

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.

Religious Universities Covered by NLRA

The issue in Seattle University, 364 NLRB No. 84 and Saint Xavier University, 364 NLRB No. 85 was whether these religiously affiliated institutions should be exempted from the Board’s jurisdiction based on First Amendment guarantees against entanglement between church and state. The universities argued that as religious institutions, their faculty members are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. At the very least, they argued, teachers in religious studies departments should be excluded from the proposed bargaining units, which comprised part-time and contingent faculty.

In both cases, the Regional Director determined that the university’s faculty members generally were covered by the NLRA and that the unit appropriately included religious studies faculty. On review, the Board applied its test set forth in Pacific Lutheran, 361 NLRB No. 157 (2014), which permits Board jurisdiction unless: (1) the university or college holds itself out as providing a religious educational environment; and (2) it holds out the petitioned-for faculty members as performing a specific role in creating or maintaining the school’s religious educational environment. (For more about the Board’s decision in Pacific Lutheran University, 361 NLRB 157 (2014), see here ).  The Board found that both universities met this test when it came to faculty in the religious studies departments, thereby excluding them from the bargaining units.

While this might sound like good news, the Board denied review of the Regional Director’s determination that faculty in other departments were covered. The Board thus continues to ignore the Supreme Court’s mandate in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979) that the NLRA must be construed to exclude teachers in church-operated schools. The Board is not entitled to base jurisdiction on the conclusion that certain teachers perform a role in creating or maintaining the school’s religious educational environment. However, that is exactly what happened in these two cases. According to the Supreme Court, this type of inquiry by itself may impermissibly impinge on rights guaranteed by the Religion Clauses of the Constitution.

Conclusion

The Board continues to broadly exercise its authority in order to maximize the number of employers and employees covered by the Act, this time in cases involving three universities. We can expect challenges to all three decisions.