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:  Bryan R. Bienias

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Board affirms an employer’s decision to discharge an employee for engaging in dishonesty and a security breach. In the process, it clarifies the legal standards to be used when assessing whether non-verbal employee misconduct occurring in the midst of otherwise protected concerted activity loses the protections of the Act.

Background

The case, KHRG Employer LLC, 366 NLRB No. 22 (February 28, 2018), involved a Chicago-area hotel and a restaurant server who was leading an organizing drive at the property. The hotel terminated the server’s employment after he engaged in a security breach in the process of leading a delegation of nearly twenty individuals — only six of whom were hotel employees and only some of whom the server knew personally — into the non-public areas of the hotel to deliver a petition to the hotel’s General Manager. The GM’s office was located in a secure area of the hotel, behind a locked door, where the hotel stored cash, corporate checks, guest contracts, and personnel files.

Even before the server punched in a security code to gain access to the secure area, he lied to a security guard to gain entry to the hotel. After the security guard told the server that only he and a few others could come inside, the server falsely insisted that the entire delegation consisted of hotel employees who supposedly had the “right” to come in to see the GM.

While acknowledging that the server’s conduct in presenting the petition with other employees ordinarily would have been protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act, the hotel nonetheless terminated the server’s employment because he engaged in a “serious security breach” by allowing unknown and unauthorized strangers into the secure area of the hotel.

The ALJ and Board Decisions

The ALJ dismissed the complaint, applying the decades-old Wright Line test to find that hotel’s decision was motivated by the server’s misconduct, not by the server’s protected concerted activity or by anti-union animus. The Board affirmed the ultimate outcome, but it declined to apply the Wright Line test. The Board noted that Wright Line was inapplicable because “when misconduct is a part of the res gestae of the employee’s protected concerted activity, the employer’s motive is not at issue.” At the same time, the Board also declined to apply Atlantic Steel, another decades-old case involving a four-factor balancing test normally applied to unprofessional verbal outbursts during otherwise protected concerted activity. The Board stated that the Atlantic Steel test was “ill-suited” to analyze misconduct “that does not occur during a workplace conversation with a supervisor or manager.”

Instead, the Board explained that, in situations involving non-verbal misconduct that is part of the “res gestae” of an employee’s protected concerted activity, it will “balance employees’ right to engage in concerted activity, allowing some leeway for impulsive behavior, against employers’ right to maintain order and respect.”

Applying this test, the Board found that the server’s conduct lost the Act’s protection.  The Board noted that the server’s conduct was not “impulsive,” but pre-meditated, and that he lied to the security guard and used a security passcode to provide unauthorized access to the secured area.

Key Takeaways

This decision should be considered a win for any employer hoping to maintain a secure facility and not have to hand over the keys (or the passcodes) to unauthorized strangers the moment employees seek to invoke Section 7 rights.

In addition, particularly given the makeup of the Board panel that decided the case (with Democrat appointees making up a majority, even during a Republican administration), this decision also should provide employers with a fair degree of going-forward legal certainty regarding the standard the Board will apply when addressing non-verbal employee misconduct that is otherwise part of protected concerted activity. That said, it remains the case that employers may not enforce their rules against misconduct more harshly against union supporters than against others or more harshly precisely because the misconduct occurred in conjunction with otherwise protected concerted activity.

 

  By: Paul Galligan, Esq. and Samuel Sverdlov, Esq.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) vacated election results from a representation election because the Board agent opened the polling for a voting session 7 minutes late. The employer lost the election by a vote of 14-12, with one challenged ballot. However, there were 4 eligible voters (who were present in the polling location during the 7-minute delay) who did not vote in the election. Following the election, the employer filed two objections, one of which challenged the election results because the delay in voting resulted in potential disenfranchisement of a dispositive number of voters. At a hearing before a Hearing Officer, there was no evidence presented regarding either the reasons why the employees did not vote or whether any employees complained that they were prevented from voting due to the delay. Thus, the Hearing Officer overruled the employer’s objection, and the Regional Director adopted the Hearing Officer’s decision.

The employer thereafter appealed the Regional Director’s decision to the Board. In the 2-1 decision, in which Board Members William Emanuel, a Trump-appointee, and Lauren McFerran, an Obama appointee, participated in the majority, together, the Board applied the “potential disenfranchisement test” rather than the “actual disenfranchisement test” to determine whether to set aside the election. The Board majority cited Pea Ridge Iron Ore Co., 355 NLRB 161 (2001) in holding that the key issue in deciding whether to vacate the election is whether the late opening of the polls results in the “possible disenfranchisement of potentially dispositive voters.” As the Board in Pea Ridge stated:

When election polls are not opened at their scheduled times, the proper standard for determining whether a new election should be held is whether the number of employees possibly disenfranchised thereby is sufficient to affect the election outcome, not whether those voters, or any voters at all, were actually disenfranchised.

The Board rejected dissenting Board Member and Obama appointee Mark Pearce’s contention that setting aside an election requires proof of actual-disenfranchisement. Accordingly, the NLRB vacated the results of the election and remanded the case to the Regional Director to conduct a second election.

OUTLOOK

In an era when bipartisan politics appears to be as forgotten as the film, A Bronx Tale, the Bronx Lobster decision reminds us that Republicans and Democrats can still find common ground applying hyper-technical interpretations of union election rules. Specifically, the NLRB is willing to vacate a union election when the polling began 7 minutes late! This decision serves as a valuable lesson to employers that any deviation from the union election rules could result in an election being set aside. Thus, employers should consult with experienced counsel when preparing for a union election to understand the applicable rules, select appropriate observers, and remain vigilant during the election for any irregularities.

If you have any questions please contact your local Seyfarth Shaw attorney.

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) issued an Order vacating the Board’s decision in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd. and Brandt Construction Co., 365 NLRB No. 156 (2017), in light of the determination by the Board’s Designated Agency Ethics Official that Member William Emanuel is, and should have been, disqualified from participating in the Hy-Brand proceeding. In Hy-Brand, the NLRB had overruled its joint employer test set forth in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015),and returned to its pre Browning-Ferris test.

Under the pre Browning-Ferris joint employer test, which the Board had restored in Hy-Brand, two or more entities were deemed joint employers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) if there was proof that one entity has exercised control over essential employment terms of another entity’s employees (rather than merely having reserved the right to exercise control) and did so directly and immediately (rather than indirectly) in a manner that was not limited and routine.

In contrast, under the Browning-Ferris test again in effect, the NLRB finds that two or more entities are joint employers of a single workforce if (1) they are both employers within the meaning of the common law;  and (2) they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment. In evaluating whether an employer possesses sufficient control over employees to qualify as a joint employer, the Board will – among other factors — consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment indirectly through an intermediary, or whether it has reserved the authority to do so.

As the Hy-Brand Board majority underscored, the breadth and vagueness of such a joint employer test threatens to ensnare a vast range of economic relationships, including:

  • insurance companies that require employers to take certain actions with their employees in order to comply with policy requirements for safety, security, health, etc.
  • franchisors
  • banks or other lenders whose financing terms may require certain performance measurements
  • any company that negotiates specific quality or product requirements
  • any company that grants access to its facilities for a contractor to perform services there, and then regulates the contractor’s access to the property for the duration of the contract
  • any company that is concerned about the quality of contracted services
  • consumers or small businesses who dictate times, manner, and some methods of performance of contractors

Accordingly, companies in or contemplating such relationships should account for this new development.  While it is widely expected that the Trump NLRB will eventually overrule Browning-Ferris, when that may occur is uncertain.

By Timothy M. Hoppe and Jack Lambremont

Seyfarth Synopsis: In some early spring cleaning, last week the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel released 43 memos authored by its Division of Advice meant to provide guidance to regional offices on pending charges. Here are some of the highlights that employers should not miss.

Either the General Counsel’s office has started spring cleaning a little early or it is working hard to clear its plate before spring break. Either way, last week its Division of Advice released 43 advice memoranda. The cache weighs in on a number of cogent issues, including Google’s decision to fire an employee for suggesting that men are more suited for the tech industry than women, and the lawfulness of a union’s shadow Facebook group meant to harass dissenting union members.

An arm of the General Counsel’s office, the Division of Advice provides guidance to the regional offices on how to approach difficult or novel legal issues. The General Counsel has discretion to release the memos the Division prepares after cases are closed. Although they are not binding on the Board, the memos can provide insight into the General Counsel’s priorities and approach to charges.

Here are a few highlights from last week’s wave of releases.

Google Lawfully Discharged an Employee for Violating Its Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policies

In a memorandum issued on January 16, 2018, the Division of Advice weighed-in on whether Google violated the NLRA when it terminated an employee for drafting and circulating a document containing a number of statements suggesting that men were more suited for the tech industry than women.

After attending a summit on Google’s diversity programs, the employee authored a critique of the company’s inclusion initiatives, which included statements attempting to rationalize the gender gap in the tech industry and at Google using gender stereotypes. The document also accused Google of not tolerating certain types of political views. The employee posted versions of the document on a couple of internal, company-sponsored discussion groups. A number of coworkers complained about the postings and, according to the advice memo, a few employment candidates withdrew from consideration due to the posts.

After an investigation, Google concluded that the employee violated Google’s anti-harassment and discrimination policies, and discharged the employee. In explaining its rational to the employee, Google stated that it based the decision solely on the employee’s comments regarding gender stereotypes. It was not based in any way on the employee’s discussion of training programs or Google’s treatment of differing political views. Google also sent a company-wide email echoing these points.

The Division of Advice acknowledged that much of the content of the employee’s memorandum likely constituted protected, concerted activity (such as criticisms about Google’s culture and training). Nevertheless, the discharge did not violate the Act. The memo noted that the Act does not protect conduct creating a hostile work environment, or constituting racial or sexual discrimination. The employee’s comments about gender stereotypes constituted this type of unprotected conduct. The Division also concluded that Google only terminated the employee’s employment for the unprotected conduct. The company’s termination memo and company-wide email were enough to demonstrate that Google did not consider the protected portions of the employee’s posts. Accordingly, the Division of Advice advised the region to dismiss the charge.

Employee Benefits PowerPoints Helped Create a Binding Contract Term

The Division of Advice concluded in a November 7, 2017 memo that a charge should issue against an employer for failing to bargain before rescinding an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) for union members.

The memo concerns union employees at a chemical facility in Kentucky that employed both union and non-union workers. The ESPP was not an express term in the union’s CBA. However, in late 2016, the employer gave a number of power point presentations to both union and non-union employees indicating that all employees were eligible for the benefit. The union and employer also discussed the ESPP on a few occasions, and the employer held it out to the union as a potential offset to its proposed health insurance premium increases. Nevertheless, shortly before opening enrollment to the ESPP, the employer notified the union that bargaining unit employees were not eligible for the benefit.

The Division of Advice concluded that the employer’s “initial announcements of the ESPP to unit employees and reinforcing representations to [u]nion officials established a term and condition of employment.” Although the employer rescinded the purported contract term before it was implemented, the Division concluded that the employer’s statements alone had “established the ESPP as an employment term the unit employees reasonably expected.”

Franchisor Not Liable for Social Media Policies Adopted By Franchisees

On September 21, 2017, the Division of Advice determined that Subway could not be liable for its Franchisees’ use of a corporate social media policy Subway authored because Subway did not require the franchisees to adopt it.

Subway created the social media policy and made it available to its 26,000 franchisees through the company’s internet portal. On a few occasions, the company encouraged the franchisees to use the policy, but the company never required them to adopt the policy.

Phoenix’s Region 28 determined that the Subway policy was overly broad and discriminatory, and sought advice on whether it could hold Subway liable for the franchisees’ violations. The Division did not consider the policy’s legality (for a summary of the Board’s new, more moderate position on handbook provisions click here); it only considered whether a franchiser could be liable for its franchisees’ use of the policy.

The Division noted that companies may be liable for other employers’ violations of the Act if the company directs other employers with whom it has business dealings to engage in the unlawful conduct. Here, however, the Division concluded that it could not prove that Subway directed its franchisees to adopt the social media policy. Subway only recommend, encouraged, and asked the franchisees to consider adopting it. It did not track which franchisees had downloaded the policy, did not punish franchisees for not adopting the policy, and only a couple hundred franchisees actually adopted it. Accordingly, the Division recommended dismissing the charge against Subway, provided it was not first withdrawn.

Union’s Shadow Facebook Group Violated the NLRA

A shadow Facebook group started by Teamsters Local 610 violated the NLRA, according to an advice memo issued on September 21, 2017.

The Facebook group was created by union leadership during contract negotiations in response to a union member’s complaints about the composition of the union’s bargaining team, and terms the team was negotiating for some union members. The union excluded the member and his supporters from the Facebook group. It also posted a number of derogatory statements directed at the member to the Facebook page.

The Division of Advice concluded that the union’s Facebook group violated the Act for two reasons. First, the union created it to restrain and coerce dissenting members to refrain from exercising protected Section 7 activities. As the Division noted, although many of the comments may have been trivial and immature, they were “nonetheless deliberate and otherwise unprovoked acts made in direct response to the [members’] protected activity.” Thus, they were meant to exclude, ostracize, and humiliate the members. The Facebook group also violated the Act because the union unlawfully denied the dissenting members access to the group based solely on their disagreement with the union. The Division equated this to restricting access to a union bulletin board, which violated employees’ Section 8(b)(1)(A) rights.

As a remedy, the Division of Advice recommended requiring the union to (1) remove all offensive posts from the Facebook page; (2) pin a notice to the top of the page as a notice of improper conduct; and (3) invite all union members to join the Facebook group.

 

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By:  Jaclyn W Hamlin

Seyfarth Synopsis: The business community has another opportunity to convince the NLRB to rescind the expedited election rules that have been wreaking havoc on workplaces since 2014, after the agency extended the public comment period to March 19, 2018.

In the fast-paced, ever-changing world of NLRB precedent and procedures, April of 2015 seems like an eternity ago.  Nearly three years ago now, the Board under President Obama implemented new expedited election rules which overhauled the Board’s existing representation case procedures.  The rules, which many employers came to call the “ambush” or “quickie” election rules, shortened the time for pre-election hearings; required rapid filing of a pre-hearing position statement and preliminary voter list (and deemed any issues not raised by the employer in the position statement waived); vested more discretion in regional directors, including giving the regional director the authority to determine whether parties could file post-hearing briefs; imposed new Excelsior list requirements including an earlier submission date; and required earlier elections with limited to no right to NLRB review of post-election disputes.  Unsurprisingly, employers were alarmed by the new rules, which placed management on the defensive with only a short period of time to make the company’s case to employees considering unionization.

With the change in Presidential Administrations, and accompanying changes in the makeup of the Board, NLRB-watchers have already seen more business-friendly policies begin to fall into place – and there is a chance that representation case procedures could be among them.  In December of 2017, the Board published a notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment on three questions:

  1. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained without change?
  2. Should the 2014 Election Rule be retained with modifications? If so, what should be modified?
  3. Should the 2014 Election rule be rescinded? If so, should the Board revert to the Representation Election Regulations that were in effect prior to the 2014 Election Rule’s adoption, or should the Board make changes to the prior Representation Election Regulations?  If the Board should make changes to the prior Representation Election Regulations, what shoul be changed?

The comment period was originally set to expire on Monday, February 12, 2018, but in late January the Board issued a press release informing the public that “to aid in the consideration of the issues involving the 2014 Election Rule,” the Board would extend the public comment period through Monday, March 19, 2018.  The Board did not explain its reasoning in extending the public comment period, but it is possible that it concluded that more comments would help it to reach the most fully-informed decision about the fate of representation case procedures.

With this extension, the business community has another chance to make its views known to the Board about the fairest and most efficient way to conduct union representation elections.  The public comment period is an opportunity to draw the Board’s attention to the real impact that representation case procedures have on employers of all sizes and industries – before the Board turns its attention to other matters and the opportunity to regain sanity in union elections is relegated to the back-burner.

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: Kyllan B. Kershaw, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Union organizers are increasingly embracing the #MeToo movement as an organizing tool, claiming that unions are the key to eliminating gender inequity and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers across the country are examining their corporate culture and taking steps to avoid being the next sexual harassment headline in response to the #MeToo movement. While employers already have plenty of reason to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, the #MeToo movement has also created an uptick in unions claiming that joining their ranks is the key to preventing sexual harassment.

Female union organizers are openly embracing this strategy, publicly forecasting plans to collaborate with the Women’s March and use political action committees to promote unions aimed at protecting women. Given the current focus on sexual harassment, employers can also expect to see unions increasingly target companies with high-profile sexual-harassment or gender-discrimination claims, including employers facing collective actions.

Female union leaders are not only using #MeToo as an organizing tool but to call out organized labor on its own gender issues. For example, in a recent article entitled “What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement,” union organizer Jane McAlevey bemoans the “sexist male leadership inside the labor movement” and calls on women to embrace the idea of a female-led labor movement focused on obtaining free childcare, schedule control, and family leave, including in areas such as education and healthcare where women employees comprise the majority.

Employers should expect that the #MeToo movement’s substantial momentum will spur increased organizing efforts aimed specifically at women and quite possibly result in a significant shakeup of union leadership or the formation of new female-focused unions. As such, female-driven union campaigns are likely on the rise, creating unique issues for employers and an increased need for well-trained female members of management who can persuasively assure female employees that a union is not necessary to stopping harassment, achieving pay equity, and otherwise improving the workplace for women.

Seyfarth lawyers have extensive experience devising strategies to avoid and respond to union campaigns targeted towards women, including those involving claims of sexual harassment or raising issues of gender equity. Please do not hesitate to reach out to any Seyfarth lawyer for more information.

 

By: Ashley Laken, Esq. & Brian Stolzenbach, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Although many employers may think they can let their guard down a little bit when it comes to the NLRB under the Trump Administration, history suggests otherwise. During the last Republican Administration, labor unions often decided to wage their battles outside the NLRB, using tactics like the “corporate campaign.” Although corporate campaigns have been around for a long time and continued even during the Obama Administration, union corporate campaign activity during the Bush Administration suggests that employers would be well advised to implement strategies aimed at reducing their vulnerability to such campaigns and effectively responding to such campaigns in the event they become a target.

When the NLRB shifts from Democrat control to Republican control, as it has under the Trump Administration, many employers rejoice, believing that a Republican-controlled NLRB will take a more employer-friendly approach. This is almost certainly true, but employers should keep in mind that appeals to NLRB intervention are not the only ways for unions to create incredible headaches for employers.

Background on Corporate Campaigns

A corporate campaign is an attack by a union on a company or an industry with the goal of putting so much pressure on the target that it will give in to the union’s demands. Such attacks are multi-pronged and often long-running. Indeed, unions have devoted millions of dollars and multiple years to individual corporate campaigns, and such campaigns have become more sophisticated and coordinated over the years. The typical union philosophy in launching such a campaign is to cost an employer so much time and money and cause it so much disruption that it ultimately gives in to what the union wants.

A corporate campaign’s most common objective is to facilitate union organizing, often by coercing an employer into accepting a card-check agreement along with neutrality commitments (in other words, to agree to recognize the union without a formal election and to stay silent on its views regarding the unionization of its workforce). Corporate campaigns are widely known as a means of organizing workers by disorganizing companies.

In launching a corporate campaign, a union identifies and then exploits a company’s perceived vulnerabilities. Common tactics unions employ in corporate campaigns include:

  • Filing a stream of unfair labor practice charges against the company
  • Encouraging investigations of potential OSHA, wage and hour, environmental, and/or antitrust violations by the company (see our recent management alert regarding antitrust enforcement against employers here)
  • Causing union-paid organizers to get jobs within the company (known as “salting”)
  • Placing print, digital, radio, and/or TV ads attacking the company, establishing anti-company websites, and distributing anti-company materials (including emails and social media messages) to customers, shareholders, and employees
  • Introducing shareholder resolutions aimed at reducing management’s independence
  • Challenging the zoning or permitting of new company facilities
  • Alleging or implying sexual misconduct by company executives or claiming that the company does not pay its employees fairly (the #metoo and #timesup movements are likely to add more fuel to any such fire)
  • Recruiting celebrities, politicians, clergy, and other community leaders to put pressure on the company

A variety of unions have launched a multitude of corporate campaigns over the years, and they often team up with each other and pool their resources against a single company. Collectively, unions employ hundreds of professional corporate campaigners, with job titles such as “online advocacy organizer” and “strategic communications specialist.” The typical position postings for such jobs list responsibilities that include developing campaign strategies and messages, conducting online research, and executing effective media plans. Given the growing presence of Millennials in the workforce, a group that (broadly speaking) considers itself both technologically savvy and socially conscious, unions are likely to have no shortage of candidates for such positions.       

What Employers Can Do

Companies of all sizes, in all locations, and in all industries are potentially vulnerable to corporate campaigns. Of course, the larger the company, the more attractive that company may be as a target, as more employees equals more potential revenue from union dues. In reality, however, almost no relatively large company is safe from such an attack.

Given the power of the internet and the ubiquity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, the speed with which unions can launch and carry out sophisticated and well-coordinated corporate campaigns is nothing short of astounding. Employers would be well-advised to proactively develop strategies aimed at reducing their vulnerability to such campaigns and quickly and effectively responding to such campaigns. Such strategies could include:

  • Conducting OSHA, wage and hour, and antitrust compliance audits
  • Engaging in positive employee relations training and messaging
  • Conducting up-to-date anti-harassment training
  • Evaluating pay equity within the company
  • Creating an effective internal and external communication system in relation to potential and actual union activity
  • Assembling a dedicated team of inside or outside counsel to respond to filings at the NLRB, such as unfair labor practice charges and representation petitions

Seyfarth lawyers have extensive experience devising and implementing strategies designed to avoid and effectively respond to corporate campaigns. Please don’t hesitate to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney for more information.

 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.