Posts

A union that isn’t a union? The New York Times on the growing presence of “solidarity unions”

Interesting lunchtime read today for HR and labor-employment law professionals, in the New York Times. The article discusses the growing presence of non-union unions called “solidarity unions,” especially in the tech industry. These groups are simply informal associations of two or more workers in a workplace.

The article is a good reminder for employers that, if workers don’t feel they have a voice in the workplace, they will find a way to express and protect themselves, whether it means through a formal union or simply acting together to secure their goals.

As the article notes, such workers enjoy legal protections, indeed the National Labor Relations Act protects workers who act to further their wages, hours or working conditions, whether or not they do so through a union. Also protected are worker actions, with no union involved, involving two or more workers actin in concert with each other, or sometimes even, as a previous blog post noted, when a single worker acts on behalf of his colleagues.

The New York Times reports that “solidarity unions” are already present at Google, Kickstarter, Uber and other companies. Their proponents believe they hold several advantages over traditional organized unions: They do not need to be recognized through NLRB-sanctioned elections. They do not need the support of a majority of the workers. They do not need to, and generally do not, enter into collective bargaining type agreements. Rather they prefer not to have such agreements, instead hoping to keep the company “on its toes” by engaging in labor actions if and when the workers choose, for the reasons chosen by the workers.

The article discusses these “solidarity unions” as outgrowths of a single book, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer.

Source: “The Radical Guidebook Embraced by Google Workers and Uber Drivers,” New York Times (10/10/19).

NLRB implements Supreme Court’s 2018 decision on arbitration agreements

In 2018, the Supreme Court rejected, in a decision titled Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the argument that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for protected concerted activity somehow encompass a right to file class action and collective action lawsuits. There the Supreme Court held that, accordingly, employers can require pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even if it means such agreements block class and collective actions.

The Board recently was faced with a case on the issue and adopted the Supreme Court’s approach, restating that the NLRA does not bar arbitration agreements, even if they have that effect. In doing so, the NLRB clarified that employers are still prohibited from retaliating against employees who choose to act together by filing a class or collective action. “We reaffirm, however, longstanding precedent establishing that Section 8(a)(1) prohibits employers from disciplining or discharging employees for engaging in concerted legal activity, which includes filing a class or collective action with fellow employees over wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment.

Source:  Cordua Restaurants, Inc., 368 NLRB No. 43 (8/14/19).

NLRB limits “Army of One” cases

Taking a cue from the longtime successful ad campaign, labor practitioners refer to a category of NLRB charges as so-called “Army of One” cases. The National Labor Relations Act protected only concerted activity, which generally means two or more people working together, to further their wages, hours and working conditions. In an Army of One case, that principle is extended to cover the protests of a single employee; the Army of One doctrine allows a single person, who doesn’t act in “concert” with anyone else, to assert a violation of the NLRA if he is acting on behalf of his colleauges.

In its 2011 decision WorldMark by Wyndham, the NLRB extended the Army of One doctrine to individual gripes that are asserted in a group setting. Before WorldMark, the Board had looked for actual evidence of “group activities” prior to the protest, such as evidence of an actual discussion between the workers discussing the complaint that the individual ended up lodging. In WorldMark the Board recognized the ability of a single individual to become an Army of One, i.e., to engage in NLRA-protected activities, by making a complaint in a group setting.

Now, the Board has reversed WorldMark. No longer is simply making a complaint in a group setting sufficient. Instead the Board identified five factors to be considered.

The fact that a statement is made at a meeting, in a group setting or with other employees present will not automatically make the statement concerted activity. Rather, to be concerted activity, an individual employee’s statement to a supervisor or manager must either bring a truly group complaint regarding a workplace issue to management’s attention, or the totality of the circumstances must support a reasonable inference that in making the statement, the employee was seeking to initiate, induce or prepare for group action. … (R)elevant factors that would tend to support drawing such an inference include that (1) the statement was made in an employee meeting called by the employer to announce a decision affecting wages, hours, or some other term or condition of employment; (2) the decision affects multiple employees attending the meeting; (3) the employee who speaks up in response to the announcement did so to protest or complain about the decision, not merely (as in WorldMark) to ask questions about how the decision has been or will be implemented; (4) the speaker protested or complained about the decision’s effect on the work force generally or some portion of the work force, not solely about its effect on the speaker him- or herself; and (5) the meeting presented the first opportunity employees had to address the decision, so that the speaker had no opportunity to discuss it with other employees beforehand.

Applying this approach to the facts of this case, the Board rejected an airport skycap’s claim that he’d engaged in Army of One protected activity when he said (to a customer), in the presence of his colleagues, that “we” had performed a certain task “and we didn’t receive a tip for it.”  Even his use of “we” was held insufficient.

(I)ndividual griping does not qualify as concerted activity solely because it is carried out in the presence of other employees and a supervisor and includes the use of the first-person plural pronoun.

Source: Alstate Maintenance, LLC, 367 NLRB No. 68 (2019).