By: Christopher W. Kelleher

Seyfarth Synopsis: On March 15, 2018, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Novelis Corp., et al. v. NLRB, et al., upholding several unfair labor practices against Novelis Corp., but due to passage of time and changed circumstances, halting the National Labor Relations Board’s efforts to issue a Gissel bargaining order against the Company.

Background

In December 2013, aluminum manufacturer Novelis Corp. announced to employees at its Oswego, New York facility that they would no longer receive Sunday premium pay and that holiday and vacation days would no longer count towards overtime eligibility.  In response, several employees began a union organizing campaign, and obtained union-authorization cards from a majority of eligible employees.  In early January 2014, after declining the union’s request for voluntary recognition, Novelis restored Sunday and holiday pay.

In its efforts to resist organizing, the Company reminded employees that Novelis’ unionized plant in Quebec had closed while its plant in non-unionized Oswego continued to flourish.  The Company also suggested that unionization would lead to loss of business.

Novelis narrowly prevailed in the February 2014 election by a vote of 287 to 273.  After the election, pro-union employee Everett Abare posted a vulgar remark on Facebook complaining about his paycheck and criticizing those who did not vote for the union.  In response, Novelis demoted Abare.

After a hearing, Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Rosas found Novelis committed numerous unfair labor practices.  Specifically, the Company violated Section 8(a)(1) by restoring Sunday and holiday pay, removing union literature, interrogating employees, and prohibiting employees from wearing union paraphernalia.  The ALJ also found that Novelis threatened employees with wage loss, plant closure, and more difficult working conditions if they were to unionize.  Finally, the ALJ found Novelis violated Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) by demoting Abare after his Facebook post.  The ALJ recommended several forms of relief, but most notably, he recommended a Gissel bargaining order because, in his view, “traditional remedies … would be insufficient to alleviate the impact reasonably incurred by eligible unit employees[.]”

Novelis filed exceptions with the NLRB, seeking to introduce evidence of significant employee and management turnover since the alleged unfair labor practices, and arguing that changed circumstances rendered the bargaining order inappropriate.  In August 2016, even though more than two years had passed, the Board adopted the ALJ’s findings and refused to reopen the record.  Specifically, the Board noted that it “does not consider turnover among bargaining unit employees or management officials and the passage of time in determining whether a Gissel [bargaining] order is appropriate.”

Discussion

While the Court upheld the Board’s findings as to the unfair labor practices, it disagreed as to the appropriateness of the bargaining order.  In NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575 (1969), the Supreme Court held that sufficiently serious violations of the NLRA can justify an order requiring an employer to bargain with a union that did not win an organizing election.  However, the Second Circuit has “repeatedly held” that bargaining orders are a rare remedy which are warranted only when it is clearly established that traditional remedies such as a secret ballot rerun election cannot eliminate the effects of the employer’s past unfair labor practices.  Thus, employees should not have unions imposed upon them when, by exercise of their own free will, they might choose otherwise.

The Court found that the Board failed to consider changed circumstances in determining whether to hold a rerun election.  And the Court specifically disagreed with the Board’s contention that it should not consider turnover and passage of time in determining whether a bargaining order is appropriate.  Indeed, “relevant circumstances must be measured at the time of the issuance of the bargaining order and not at the time of the election.”

Several key factors led the Court to hold that a bargaining order was not a suitable remedy:  (1) Novelis took numerous remedial actions since committing the unfair labor practices; (2) two years had passed between the election and the Board’s decision, and a “substantial lapse of time casts doubt” on whether a majority of employees would choose to unionize; (3) the Board ignored key turnover in company leadership; and (4) the Board failed to consider significant employee turnover since the election.  It was thus inappropriate to impose union membership absent a finding that a new, fair election more than three years after the violations was not reasonably possible.

Key Takeaways

This case is instructive for several reasons.  First, employers should take caution when responding to organizing activity.  Novelis committed several avoidable unfair labor practices through its union avoidance techniques.  On the other hand, the case reaffirms that bargaining orders are extreme forms of relief, and should not be issued without careful consideration of whether changed circumstances render such an order inappropriate.

 

By Andrew Cockroft

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Monday, February 5, 2018, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit challenging the City of Seattle’s ordinance allowing independent-contractor drivers to engage in collective bargaining was before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for oral argument. The outcome of the litigation could have a far reaching impact on the growth of the “gig-economy.”

In December 2015, the City of Seattle became the first city in the United States to pass an ordinance creating collective-bargaining rights for “taxi-cab, flat-rate vehicle and transportation network company drivers,” that would allow such drivers to bargain with their respective companies concerning issues such as payment to drivers, vehicle safety, and other matters of mutual interest. Seyfarth has previously covered similar state and local proposals which sought to provide collective bargaining rights to such workers.

The Chamber’s Lawsuit: Antitrust and NLRA Preemption

Seattle’s ordinance was immediately questioned by business community groups. In March 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the city seeking to enjoin the new law. The Chamber’s complaint rests on two key claims:

  • First, the ordinance violates the Sherman Antitrust Act because it permits independent-contractors to collude on the prices they will accept for their services and that such activities are per se illegal.
  • Second, the ordinance is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act because it grants collective bargaining rights to independent-contractors even though Congress intended them to be left entirely unregulated in their labor activity and, furthermore, because these drivers are “arguably employees,” the ordinance encroaches on uniform labor law that is properly adjudicated before the NLRB.

Ultimately, the Chamber’s case attempts to put the ordinance, and others like it, in a double-bind: if the drivers are independent-contractors, then the ordinance violates antitrust law by allowing such contractors to collude against the companies they work with, but if they are employees the ordinance is preempted by the NLRA because the city seeks to create municipal bargaining rights where the NLRB is the only agency authorized to make such determinations.

The District Court Grants the City’s Motion to Dismiss

The city moved to dismiss and, in August 2017, the District Court granted their motion. Specifically, the Court rejected the Chamber’s antitrust claim, holding instead that the ordinance was immune from federal antitrust suits. The Court reasoned that the ordinance was authorized by Washington statutes that allow for regulating “for-hire transportations services” in order to promote safe and reliable service. The Court rejected the Chamber’s argument that granting drivers rights to collectively bargain was not related to promotion of safety or reliability, but rather payment for services. The city persuaded the Court that collective bargaining rights promoted safety and reliability in for-hire transportation because, for example, “in other parts of the transportation industry  . . . collective negotiation processes have reduced accidents and improved driver and vehicle safety performance.”

The Court also dismissed the Chamber’s NLRA preemption claim on two basis. First, because the Chamber has alleged that the drivers covered by the ordinance are independent-contractors and are not subject to the NLRA, they could not argue that the drivers where “arguably protected” under the NLRA, a necessary pre-condition of preemption. Second, the Court found that because the NLRA did not explicitly exclude independent-contractors from unionization, it was left up to states and municipalities to determine if such workers could be granted collective bargaining rights. As such the Court found “that Congress was indifferent to the labor rights of independent contractors  . . . because their disputes were thought to be of insufficient magnitude to affect commerce.”

Ninth Circuit Appeal and Oral Argument

The Chamber appealed the District Court’s dismissal to the Ninth Circuit. During oral argument on February 5, 2018, the audio of which is available here, the parties mostly focused on the antitrust aspect of the case, particularly whether Washington State statutes authorized the ordinance and whether permitting bargaining over compensation was sufficiently related to safety and reliability in the transportation industry.

The panel seemed skeptical of the city’s position, with Judge Milan Smith even stating, “You can regulate [the for-hire transportation industry] in terms of the drivers having to get a lube job, they have to get the car washed, they have to stop and help people, that’s all cool. But that has nothing to do with fixing rates, that’s what I’m struggling with.”

While very little of the argument focused on NLRA preemption, when given the opportunity counsel for the Chamber took issue with the District Court’s holding that the Chamber’s own opinion on whether the drivers were, in fact, employees was determinative of preemption. Rather, he explained the issue was whether the drivers where “arguably” employees and given that the issue is currently in front of the NLRB, three District Courts in California had deemed them employees, and that the Teamsters Union are advocating on behalf of such drivers, it is difficult to state they are not “arguably” employees.

Seyfarth will be watching this case very closely and encourages employers to do the same. A decision in favor of the Chamber could provide a road-map for preventing and challenging similar ordinances in other large cities. However, if the Ninth Circuit affirms the District Court’s decision, one can except to see labor organizations push even harder to organizing rights at the municipal level.

By: Robert A. Fisher & Skelly Harper

Seyfarth Synopsis: A 2016 decision of the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) finding that the graduate students at Columbia University were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) has been teed up for review by the Court of Appeals. In order to obtain appellate review of the Board’s decision, Columbia University has refused to bargain with the union certified to represent its graduate-student assistants.

In a landmark ruling, Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90 (2016), the Obama Board reversed prior precedent and held that graduate-student assistants at Columbia University were employees and therefore could vote on whether to form a union. After the Union prevailed at the election in December 2016, Columbia filed objections and requested a rerun election. In a decision issued in December 2017, the current Board rejected those objections and certified the Union as the exclusive bargaining representative of the graduate-student assistants. 365 NLRB No. 136.

Teeing up the issue of whether graduate-student assistants are employees under the NLRA, Columbia has now refused to bargain with the Union. There is no right to a direct appeal of Board decisions in representation cases, and the only way for the University to obtain review of the earlier election determination is by refusing to bargain with the Union. Presumably, the Union will file an unfair labor practice charge against Columbia that will then lead to an adverse Board decision against Columbia. At that point, the University would be able to ask a federal Court of Appeals to assess whether the Board correctly decided the employee issue in the first instance.

While it is not the Board’s practice to review representation cases in the context of a refusal to bargain, there is reason to believe that the current Board may revisit whether graduate-student assistants are employees under the NLRA. Both Columbia decisions included vigorous dissents by a Republican Board member. In addition, in a separate December 2017 decision in a case involving Harvard University, another Republican Board member noted his view that Board precedent on the employee-status of students warrants reconsideration. Indeed, the Board had previously gone back and forth on the issue. In Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), the Board held that graduate-student assistants were not employees. Just two years earlier, in New York University, 332 NLRB 1205 (2000), the Board had held that graduate-student assistants were employees under the NLRA.

Regardless of whether the Columbia University decision is revisited through the appeals process or by the Board itself, it is unlikely that the 2016 decision will be the last word on the issue. The final outcome will most certainly impact efforts by unions to organize graduate-student assistants and other students such as residence assistants. The final decision also may impact the cases in which certain college athletes, usually scholarship athletes, are claiming employee status for purposes of state and federal wage-hour laws.

 By: Bryan R. Bienias, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memorandum containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December.  Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here & here to find prior posts.

While the weather outside may be frightful (for some), the agenda recently set forth by NLRB General Counsel Robb in GC 18-02 is sure to make some employers delightful this holiday season. In this installment, we will focus on the GC’s targeting of the Obama Board’s controversial decisions imposing the duty to bargain over discipline of newly unionized employees, as well as the GC’s preservation of longstanding Board doctrines governing employer campaign communications and withdrawing recognition of unpopular unions.

Out with the Old: The End of Alan Ritchey?

As we discussed here, the Board in Total Security Management, 364 NLRB No. 106 (Aug. 26, 2016) not only reaffirmed the Board’s employer-maligned Alan Ritchey decision, which required employers to bargain over discretionary discipline issued to newly organized employees prior to execution of a first contract, but also mandated prospective make-whole relief including reinstatement and back pay for future violations.

Total Security Management went even further and held that such make-whole relief would be subject to an employer’s “for cause” affirmative defense, placing the ultimate burden of persuasion on the employer to show at the compliance phase that (1) the employee engaged in misconduct; (2) the misconduct was the reason for the suspension or discharge; and (3) that the employee would have received the same discipline regardless of any disparate treatment or reasons for leniency shown by the charging party.

With GC 18-02’s listing of Total Security Management as one Board decision that “might support issuance of complaint, but where we also might want to provide the Board with an alternative analysis,” GC Robb sends a gift-wrapped message to employers that, much like 2017, Alan Ritchey’s and Total Security Management’s days may be numbered.  However, employers should continue treading carefully when considering discipline for newly unionized employees. While the Board’s reversal of these precedents are on the agenda, they remain the law of the land.

In with the . . . Old?: Preserving the Levitz Furniture and Tri-Cast Doctrines

GC Robb’s memo also expressly rescinds former General Counsel Peter Griffin’s GC 16-03, which implored the Board to overturn the framework set forth in Levitz Furniture, 333 NLRB 717, 717 (2001), which allows employers to unilaterally withdraw recognition from a union based on objective evidence that the union has lost majority support (i.e., employee signatures).  Griffin advocated for a new rule requiring a Board-sanctioned election before an employer could lawfully withdraw recognition.  With Robb’s rescinding of GC 16-03, employers can sleep somewhat easier in the year(s) ahead knowing that the Levitz framework will remain intact and that the option for employees to quickly rid themselves of an unpopular union will not be impeded through a long and costly election process.

In addition, GC 18-02 announces Robb’s abandonment of GC Griffin’s initiative to overturn the Board’s Tri-cast doctrine regarding the legality of employer statements to employees during organizing campaigns.  In Tri-Cast, 274 NLRB 377 (1985), the Board held that an employer could lawfully inform employees during a union campaign that they will not be able to discuss matters directly with management if they vote for the union and that such statements could not reasonably be characterized as retaliatory threats.

While the Obama Board had indicated its willingness to eventually overturn Tri-Cast, GC 18-02 effectively ensures that the current Board will maintain the status quo in the new year.

Should you have any questions about GC 18-02 or any labor relations issue, please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team.

 

 By: Bradford L. Livingston, Esq.

In yet another significant decision overturning a controversial Obama-era ruling, the NLRB has reverted to its prior standards in determining what will be an appropriate bargaining unit for union organizing and bargaining. PCC Structurals, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 160 (December 15, 2017).  Just a day before his term on the Board ended leaving a vacancy and 2-2 split among its members, Chairman Miscimarra along with the two newest Board members appointed by President Trump — over the sharp dissent of the Board’s two Democratic members — reversed the so-called “micro bargaining unit” test set out in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934 (2011). It’s now a Big(ger) Ba(rgaini)ng Theory, or as Sheldon Cooper might say: Bazinga!

By way of background, bargaining units are the identifiable groups of employees that unions can organize, represent, and bargain for at an employer’s facility or facilities. While the National Labor Relations Act for the most part does not define the specific requirements for who can be included in or excluded from any individual unit, it instead looks at whether the group shares enough common working conditions or “an appropriate community of interests.”  Those interests can include an almost limitless number of factors, ranging from the employer’s organizational, management and supervisory structure to which parking lots, break rooms or time clocks certain groups of employees use.  Sometimes a union may represent all employees except managers and supervisors who work at a single location.  Other times, they may represent just a particular craft (e.g., electricians), type of worker (e.g., clerical), or alternatively employees who work at multiple of the employer’s locations.  Likewise, at any individual facility, an employer may be required to deal and negotiate separate labor agreements with (and face the possibility of a strike from) multiple different unions and bargaining units.

The composition of a bargaining unit is significant for both organizing and bargaining. Under the NLRA, it does not need to be the “most” appropriate unit, merely “an” appropriate unit.  When a union files an organizing petition with the NLRB, it has invariably self-selected the group of employees where the union feels it has the best chance of winning a representation election. Often, this may be a smaller group within any facility. Under Specialty Healthcare, the NLRB had ruled that so long as any group that a union selected was minimally appropriate, it would not entertain an employer’s objections unless it could establish that other employees shared “an overwhelming” community of interest with the group the union wanted to represent. As cases under Specialty Healthcare found, working conditions need to “overlap almost completely” so that there was “no legitimate basis” for excluding others from the group the union sought to represent.  In effect, a union could often select a small group of employees within a much larger group, succeed in organizing them, and then it or other unions could try later to organize either other individual groups or the rest of the employees.  Divide and conquer.  Employers were faced with a greater likelihood of negotiating and administering different labor agreements with multiple individual bargaining units at the same facility.

In PCC Structurals, the NLRB reverted to its historical way of assessing any group that a union may seek to represent, looking at both the commonalities and differences in the employment relationship that the group shares with other coworkers.  In that case, the union sought to represent roughly 100 of over 2500 employees working at three of the employer’s facilities in Oregon.  These 100 employees worked in different departments and had different supervisors, each of whom was responsible for supervising other employees that the union did not seek to represent. In rejecting the Specialty Healthcare test under which the smaller group was found appropriate, the Board emphasized that each case will need to be assessed individually and that a smaller unit will not necessarily be appropriate.  Bigger may be better. Bazinga!

By: Ashley Laken, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December. Click here to find prior posts.

In GC Memo 18-02, the new General Counsel of the NLRB listed “Disparate treatment of represented employees during contract negotiations” as requiring submission to his Division of Advice for consideration before proceeding to issue a complaint in an unfair labor practice case, citing to the Obama Board’s decision in Arc Bridges, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 56 (2015). The new GC described Arc Bridges as “Finding unlawful the failure to give a company-wide wage increase to newly represented employees during initial bargaining, even where there was no regular, established annual increase and the employer was concerned that it would violate the Act if it unilaterally provided the increase to represented employees.” The GC Memo 18-02 suggests the GC may disagree with the Arc Bridges decision.

In Arc Bridges, while an employer was negotiating an initial collective bargaining agreement, it gave a 3% wage increase to all employees outside of the bargaining unit but did not provide any increase to bargaining unit employees. The Board found that the employer’s actions were unlawfully motivated and violated
Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA. The Board observed that an employer can treat represented and unrepresented employees differently during the course of negotiations, so long as the disparate treatment is not unlawfully motivated.  The Board then proceeded to find that the employer’s decision to withhold the wage increase from union-represented employees was motivated by antiunion animus, and ordered the employer to retroactively pay each of the affected employees for the increase they would have received, plus interest compounded daily, plus compensation for any adverse tax consequences.

Then-Member Miscimarra vigorously dissented, reasoning that in his view, the evidence manifestly failed to support an inference of unlawful motivation. He also reasoned that even if the evidence showed otherwise, the employer had shown it would have withheld the increase for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, which included preserving bargaining leverage and avoiding a Section 8(a)(5) charge.

Miscimarra observed that “Under the Board’s prevailing but mistaken view,” the General Counsel can show that protected conduct by employees was a motivating factor in an employer’s decision simply by showing generalized antiunion animus. Instead, Miscimarra observed, the General Counsel must establish a motivational link between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.

Miscimarra made these additional observations to support his view that the Board was mistaken:

  • It is important to recognize that it is not unlawful “antiunion motivation” when an employer desires to be more successful in union negotiations, and the Board has long held that employers can offer different benefits to represented and unrepresented groups of employees as part of its bargaining strategy.
  • Annual wage increases at the employer were not the status quo, and refraining from giving unit employees a wage increase while bargaining was ongoing was what the employer was supposed to do; otherwise, the employer would have violated Section 8(a)(5).
  • Especially in this context, the Board must require strong and convincing evidence sufficient to prove unlawful motivation; otherwise, employers would run the risk of violating the Act whenever they comply with their legal obligation to refrain from automatically giving represented employees whatever increases are granted to other employees.
  • The practical effect of the majority’s decision was to put the employer in a no-win situation, and the Board cannot reasonably adopt standards that cause parties to be in violation of the Act regardless of the actions they take.

In our view, Miscimarra’s approach makes more sense from both a practical and a legal standpoint. And GC Memo 18-02 suggests that the new NLRB General Counsel may agree, possibly giving employers something to look forward to in 2018.

  By:  Timothy M. Hoppe, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the NBA season opener just over a month away, at least one team could be getting an unexpected influx of free agents. In Minnesota Timberwolves Basketball, LP, 365 NLRB No. 124 (2017), the Board recently held that the production crew responsible for operating the Timberwolves’ center court video display were employees under the National Labor Relations Act and could form a bargaining unit to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.

Facts

The Minnesota Timberwolves, like most professional sports teams, has a large video display in the center of its arena to broadcast live game footage, player statistics, replays, advertisements, and fan favorites like the kiss cam during games. Behind all of these visual effects are sixteen crewmembers who operate video cameras in the arena and direct what video gets displayed during the games.

The Timberwolves maintain a roster of about 51 crewmembers with the skills to operate the video display. The team circulates a game schedule at the beginning of each season and the individual crewmembers decide which, if any, games they will work. Most perform production work for other entities when not working for the Timberwolves. For each game, the team sets the crewmembers’ start time and pays a set fee, which varies based on the game and position crewmembers hold. The team also provides the crewmembers with a basic game plan prior to each game outlining the timing of some of the promotions it wants to broadcast. But the crew maintains significant control over what makes it onto the video display during the game.

In February of 2016 the crewmembers sought to enlist an agent, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employers, to form a union. The team appealed to its referee, the NLRB, claiming that the crewmembers where independent contractors under the Act and, therefore could not unionize. The Regional Director, whistled the crewmembers’ play dead, holding that they were not employees. The crewmembers sought a booth review from the Board.

Board’s Ruling

The Board has long applied common law agency principals to decide if an employee-employer relationship exists. It considers eleven “non-exclusive” factors, none of which is “decisive:” (1) the extent of control by the employer; (2) whether the individual is engaged in a distinct business; (3) the level of supervision from the employer; (4) skills required in the occupation; (5) who provides the tools, equipment, and work place; (6) the length of employees’ employment; (7) method of payment; (8) whether the work is part of the employer’s regular business; (9) whether the parties believe an independent contractor relationship exists; (10) whether the principal is in business; and (11) whether the employee renders services as part of an entrepreneurial business with opportunity for gain or loss.

Two of the Board’s pro-union members used these sprawling factors to overturn the Regional Director’s decision. They acknowledged that crewmembers exhibited some characteristics of independent contractors. The crew retained control over which games they worked, did not receive Timberwolves’ credentials, handbooks or written guidelines, and completed W-9 and 1099 forms for tax purposes. But the majority held that the amount of control the team exerted over the crewmembers, along with the “essential component” crewmembers provided to the team’s business, rendered the crew employees under the Act. The majority emphasized that the team provided guidance to the crew prior to and sometimes during games, and characterized running the video board as “plainly among the [Team’s] central business concerns.” It also noted other things, like the team-dictated start time of each member’s shift, the team-set pay for each game, and the team-provided tools necessary to perform the crewmembers’ jobs.

Chairman Miscimarra cried foul. Also emphasizing the control factor, he noted that the relevant issue was not whether the Timberwolves helped shape the final product that was displayed on the video board by providing a broad outline to the crew; such high level control is a hallmark of any independent contractor relationship. Instead, what should matter is the control over the details of the work. And in this case, he would have held the possession arrow pointed decidedly toward independent contractor status. During each game, crewmembers determine things like which video feeds to broadcast, what shots to capture, and other aspects of the live coverage. Chairman Miscimarra also rejected the majority’s view that the crewmembers’ function was central to the team’s business; without the crew, the team would still play basketball in the arena and the television broadcast would proceed uninterrupted. In Chairman Miscimarra’s opinion, these facts, when combined with things like the crew’s ability to choose their schedules, their per-game payment structure, and lack of any meaningful supervision from the team, “substantially outweighed” any factor supporting employee status.

Employer Takeaways

The decision does not dramatically change the Board’s employee/independent contractor jurisprudence. Instead, it highlights the perils of asking any referee, whether basketball or judicial, to apply an eleven factor test to anything. It is inherently unpredictable and open to the whims of hometown (for Basketball) or political party (for the Board) biases. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that even a more reasonable Board will completely abandon a multi-factor employee test. Therefore, the Timberwolves decision should act as a reminder to employers to carefully analyze their independent contractor relationships and ensure that the contractors retain as much control over the terms and conditions of their employment as business necessity permits.

 

 

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.