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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).

Unions unable to charge lobbying costs to dues protesters, rules NLRB

In another setback to unions, the NLRB held that unions cannot charge lobbying costs to dues protesters.

In the NLRB’s terminology, a dues protestor is called a “Beck objector,” after the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Communication Workers v. Beck. There, the Supreme Court held that workers in a unionized workplace have the right to refuse to pay full union dues; instead, a so-called Beck objector can insist on paying only the share of dues that funds negotiating, administering and fighting grievances under his/her own collective bargaining agreement. Unions, therefore, set a fee rate that is lower than full dues, and must provide Beck objectors the calculations that show they are charging only Beck fees.

In this case, the Board held, first, that unions must provide those calculations to Beck objectors in the form a verified audit letter from the union’s auditor.

Next the Board turned to the union’s lobbying expenses. In this case, the union spent money to lobby state legislatures in support of legislative activity that it felt behooved its bargaining unit members, not just at this contract, but for all its members. The Board held that none of the lobbying efforts could be charged to Beck objectors.

Consistent with these cases, we conclude that lobbying expenses are not chargeable to Beck objectors under the NLRA.  We accordingly find that the Union violated its duty of fair representation by charging nonmember objectors for expenses incurred as to any of the lobbying activities at issue.

The case deals a heavy blow to unions, which frequently undertake significant lobbying efforts on behalf of their bargaining unit members.

Source: United Nurses and Allied Professionals, 367 NLRB No. 94 (3/1/19).

NLRB requires unions to state explicitly that they will work not to harm neutral employers when threatening “area standards” picketing

When companies work at the same site or even just near each other, a union — unhappy with one of them — may come to feel that actions at that location — such as that particular employer’s wage or benefit levels — are depressing “area standards.” Unions (like everyone) have a right to protest actions that affect their community, even if for example none of their members work for that employer. That is often the case because that particular employer is often a non-union company that the union is trying to organize.

Before commencing their protest activities, the union may warn not only that employer but all the employers at that location. The Board calls those other employers “neutrals.”

The Board require unions who give such warnings to explicitly state that they will work to minimize the impact on neutrals.

A union’s broadly worded and unqualified notice, sent to a neutral employer, that the union intends to picket a worksite the neutral shares with the primary employer is inherently coercive. Without any details, such a notice is ambiguous about whether the threatened picketing will lawfully target only the primary employer or will unlaw- fully enmesh the neutral employer. The neutral would understandably question why the union is sending a strike notice to an employer with no role in the dispute, and this question would reasonably lead it to at least sus- pect, if not believe, that its business would be targeted by the picketing and that it would be prudent to cease doing business with the primary employer to avoid losses. It would be unrealistic to expect neutral employers, many with little experience in arcane common-situs picketing law, to assume the union would avoid enmeshing them in the picketing. Thus, an unqualified picketing threat communicated to a neutral at a common situs is an am- biguous threat, and such an ambiguous threat enables a union to achieve the proscribed objective of coercing the neutral employer to cease doing business with the prima- ry employer—the very object a union seeks to achieve when it makes a blatantly unlawful threat to picket or unlawfully pickets a neutral. Accordingly, as our dis- senting colleague refuses to acknowledge, it is reasona- ble to conclude that when a union sends to a neutral an unqualified and therefore ambiguous notice of its intent to picket a common situs, it does so with an object to coerce the neutral to cease doing business with the pri- mary employer. A union may still lawfully inform a neutral of its intent to picket as long as it qualifies the notice by clearly indicating that its picketing will comply with legal limitations on such picketing.

Source: Electrical Workers IBEW Local 357, N.L.R.B., Case 28-CC-115255, 12/27/18

NLRB signals willingness to revisit its Settlement Bar doctrine

In a footnote to a recent decision, two current NLRB members signaled a willingness to revisit its Settlement Bar doctrine.

Under its Settlement Bar doctrine, the Board has held that workers may not attempt to “decertify” a union for at least a “reasonable” period of time after their employer has entered into an agreement to bargain. Decertification is the process, at the NLRB, whereby workers can vote a union “out.” The purpose of the Settlement Bar doctrine is to allow the union a “reasonable” time to prove its value to the workers by negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. The Board explained this rule in its 2017 decision, CTS Construction, Inc.:

Under the Board’s settlement bar doctrine, as stated in Poole Foundry & Machine Co., 95 NLRB 34 (1951), enfd. 192 F.2d 740 (4th Cir. 1951), and its progeny, an employer that enters into a settlement agreement requiring it to bargain with a union must bargain for a reasonable period of time before the union’s majority status can be questioned. In deciding whether the parties have bargained for a reasonable period of time, the Board considers the following five factors: whether the parties were bargaining for an initial agreement; the complexity of the issues negotiated and the parties’ bargaining procedures; the total amount of time elapsed since the commencement of bargaining and the number of bargaining sessions; the amount of progress made in negotiations and how near the parties were to agreement; and the presence or absence of a bargaining impasse.

In this recent case, two of the Board members said in a footnote that they were applying the current Settlement Bar doctrine in this case but only for precedential reasons. They cautioned that they would be willing to jettison the Board’s approach in a future case.

Stay tuned to the Board’s decisions to see if it does indeed abandon its current Settlement Bar doctrine.

Source: Krise Transportation, Inc.

Union Leader Salaries Soar

Issued just before the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, a survey of union leader salaries is a stunning bookmark to the Court’s blockbuster decision holding that public employees cannot be required to pay “fair share” fees, much less dues, to unions. The survey is based on public filings by the unions. It lists total compensation packages for the 10 highest paid union presidents, ranging from $449,852 to $792,483, which the survey notes is several times higher than the average salary for CEOs, $196,050, as reported by the U.S. B.L.S. Statistics like this are likely to continue to fuel right-to-work legislation and Janus-related litigation across the country.

Will the Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster in Janus apply to private employers?

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Employers have begun arguing that the Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster decision in Janus should be extended to private employers. In Janus, the Supreme Court ruled government workers cannot be required to pay “fair share” fees, much less union dues. The decision will have a huge impact on labor in America. Effectively, Janus converted government workforces into right-to-work workplaces. The decision is anticipated to strip organized labor of billions of dollars in revenues, much that had previously, in no small part, been used towards political contributions. The Supreme Court reasoned that requiring workers to pay even “fair share” fees, much less dues, was ultimately requiring them to support the unions’ political activities; workers should be free, as part of the constitution speech rights, to decide whether or not to support the unions’ political activities.

Janus was decided under the First Amendment, which only applies to government action. Private workers do not have First Amendment rights in their workplaces, at least as against their employers.

However, one employer is arguing that Janus should be extended to cover private workers nonetheless because, the employer argues, when the NLRB and courts attempt to enforce union requirements for dues and service fee collection, then the NLRB and courts are themselves the government actors. In other words, while the First Amendment does not limit a private employer’s ability to curtail worker speech, it limits the NLRB and courts’ ability to curtail worker speech. The employer already has a pending appeal before the Ninth Circuit, where it has just asked the Ninth Circuit to consider this new argument based on the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling (Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO v. NLRB v. Purple Communications, Inc., Case Nos. 17-70948, 17-71062, and 17-71276).

The issue is no doubt going to be heavily litigated, but it appears the employer has the better side of this particular argument. If — as we now know from Janus — the Constitution’s speech rights in the First Amendment protect workers against compelled union contributions, they arguably constrain not only governmental employers, but all other governmental actors, including the NLRB and courts, from stripping employees, even private employees, of those same rights.

Pre-Trump NLRB scores post-Trump win at D.C. Circuit

In 2011, the NLRB announced, in Specialty Healthcare, that a union can ask to represent only some of a company’s workers. This so-called “micro-unit” approach has been heavily criticized as permitting unions to cherry-pick a group of pro-union workers within a group of workers who otherwise would vote “No” on having a union. It has been seen as a way for a union to slide its nose into a group that would otherwise want nothing to do with that union. It has further been criticized as a bureaucratic change announced by the Board with no support in the language of the National Labor Relations Act and in direct contradiction of decades of precedent.

Despite that criticism, the D.C. Circuit recently held for the Board, ruling that the Board’s new “micro-unit” approach is within the existing language of the NLRA and was therefore a lawful approach available to the Board. Under this micro-unit approach, an employer can only defeat a union’s attempt — can only require that the vote be held among all the workers in a unit — by showing that the smaller group is “truly inappropriate” and specifically that the workers deserve a vote because they share “an overwhelming community of interest.”

The decision is most likely to face its next hurdle, which is likely to be an insurmountable hurdle, if and when a the next micro-unit case comes before the Board on review. Likely within the next few months, the Trump Administration will have seated its nominees to the Board. If a pre-Trump Board was able to reverse course and adopt micro-units, a post-Trump/Republican-majority Board is able and widely expected to reject micro-units and return Board law to pre-Specialty Healthcare.

Source: Rhino Northwest, LLC v. NLRB

Right-to-work legislation coming to you soon?

In a heavily watched and strenuously litigated case, the Seventh Circuit upheld Wisconsin’s right-to-work statute. The decision is likely to embolden efforts designed to bring right-to-work to every state. Currently, almost thirty states have some form of right-to-work legislation in place. Wisconsin‘s, which follows on the heels of Indiana‘s, were two of the strongest. Both prohibited not only any requirement that a worker become a union member, but also that they be required to pay any dues, or even fees. Both were upheld. Federal legislation is pending that would establish right-to-work in every state.

Source: INTERNATIONAL UNION OF OPERATING ENGINEERS LOCAL 139 v. SCHIMEL, Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar