Category Archives: labor unions

Employee Handbooks Under Scrutiny

OK, pop quiz: What’s the difference between these two employee-handbook policies?

  1. “Be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  2. “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, co-workers, customers and vendors.”

One, according to the National Labor Relations Board, is legal. The other is not. (I’ll tell you which was which in a minute.)

Don’t fret if you have trouble seeing the difference. That’s why we have lawyers. And that’s why there’s plenty of work for them as the ThinkstockPhotos-517631808NLRB cracks down on employee-handbook language — including provisions that once were standard — that it says is too broad.

In a series of rulings the agency has told companies to revise policies that infringe on rights of workers — unionized or not — to talk to each other about the company in person or through social media.

“Employers are really waking up to this,” says Lauri F. Rasnick, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker Green of New York. “For a long time, nonunionized employers didn’t give a lot of thought to NLRB decisions.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce contends the effort is part of an anti-employer crusade. In a highly critical December report titled “Theater of the Absurd: The NLRB Takes on the Employee Handbook,” the trade group argues that the agency “has undertaken a campaign to outlaw heretofore uncontroversial rules found in employee handbooks and in employers’ social media policies.”

Worse, according to the chamber: the NLRB’s guidance to employers often is contradictory, creating “a morass of confusion that leaves employers wondering just how they are to exercise effective control over their workplaces.”

Rasnick agrees. “I do think that’s part of the challenge for employers,” she says, noting that NLRB decisions aren’t always consistent. And they are continuing to evolve, with confidentiality provisions attracting more scrutiny in recent rulings, she says.

The latest headline came this month after an administrative law judge ruled that Quicken Loans and five related companies had illegal rules in its employee handbook, which it calls “The Big Book.” (Despite the Quicken name, the companies are not owned by software company Intuit; they’re led by Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.)

To the untutored eye, many of the rules seem pretty standard stuff. An example: “Think before you Tweet. Or post, comment or pin. What you share can live forever. If it doesn’t belong on the front page of The New York Times, don’t put it online.”

The problem with this rule, wrote judge David I. Goldman in his April 7 ruling:  Although the policy doesn’t tell workers they can’t bad-mouth the company online, “an employee considering this suggestion would reasonably feel chilled by this rule from expressing negative (but protected) information” about the employer.

The companies are appealing the decision to the full board. But there’s little indication that the NLRB is letting up on the effort.

Back to our pop quiz. Of those two employee-handbook policies, the first (“be respectful”) is illegal, according to the NLRB’s general counsel. The second (“work in a cooperative manner”) is OK.

The problem is in telling workers they must be “respectful” to management, as well as customers and others, wrote Richard F. Griffin Jr. in a memo last year. An employee might reasonably see that as a ban on complaining about the company, he wrote.

The second example is legal, Griffin wrote. “Employees would reasonably understand that it is stating the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.”

Twitter It!

Supreme Court Rejects Union-Fees Challenge

The U.S. Supreme Court just rejected a legal attack on a vital source of funds for organized labor, splitting 4-4 in a challenge that had appeared to be on the path to victory until Justice Antonin Scalia’s February death, according to Reuters.

The outcome in the case, titled Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, affirmed a lower-court ruling that allowed California to force non-union workers to pay fees to public-employee unions.

The decision left intact a 1977 legal precedent that allowed such fees, which add up to millions of dollars a year for unions.

The court’s action, the Reuters piece notes, came after a lawsuit brought by a group of non-union public school teachers from California who objected to paying fees to the California Teachers Association union. (A California law requires non-union workers to pay fees to public-sector unions representing workers such as police, firefighters and teachers to fund collective bargaining efforts.)

The decision means the status quo remains, with the unions able to collect fees from non-union workers.

“The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy to silence public employees like teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, higher education faculty and other educators to work together to shape their profession,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.

About 5 million public-sector employees are subject to union contracts that include mandatory fee provisions, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which backed the non-union teachers.

Twitter It!

Key Lessons from the Tyson Decision

ThinkstockPhotos-485982240I’m sure many of you have now read or heard about the Supreme Court’s Tyson vs. Bouaphakeo decision on Tuesday upholding a Court of Appeals decision in the Eighth Circuit,  which sides with Tyson workers at an Iowa pork-processing plant.

The employees’ main grievance was that they did not receive mandated overtime pay for time spent “donning and doffing” protective equipment.

In its attempt to reverse the judgment, lawyers representing Tyson took aim at the case’s class-action status, making two arguments. First, they argued the class should not have been certified because the method used to prove injury assumed each employee spent the same time donning and doffing protective gear. Second, they argued that certification was improper because the damages awarded to the class could be distributed to individuals who did not work any uncompensated overtime.

In delivering the majority opinion (6-2), however, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that …

“A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes—be it a class or individual action—but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.”

In this instance, Kennedy said, the court’s holding is in accord with the 2011 Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision, which supported the blocking of a class-action against the retailer.

Yesterday, I asked Patrick Bannon, a partner in the Boston office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, to share his assessment of the Tyson decision.

It’s pretty narrow, as SCOTUS decisions go, he said, because it’s largely based on the fact that it accepted a study by an expert hired by the plaintiff as valid evidence, but it didn’t really look at the particulars of the study. “They assumed,” he said, “that it was valid because the defendant hadn’t challenged the study. In a case in which an employer challenges a study with shaky statistics and not good evidence, the outcome could have been quite different.

“If there’s a cautionary tale here for employment attorneys,” Bannon said, it’s be careful of plaintiff lawyers bearing statistics.

Asked if HR leaders should be doing anything differently in light of the decision, Bannon noted that it does raise the question as to whether employers should be tracking donning and doffing time, even if it’s time employees don’t need to be paid for. “That’s a question HR folks should at least be thinking about,” he said. “It’s not always right for every workplace to try to measure tasks that you don’t think are really work, but if it turns out that it really is work and you were wrong about it, then you start down the road that Tyson Foods was on.

“If you’re an employer with a lot of employees who are all doing a repetitive task every day—and if there’s a way to measure what they’re doing that’s not too intrusive or confusing—then I’d be thinking about it,” he said.

Other employment attorneys noted that the case took on additional importance because of its connection to the Wal-Mart ruling, in which the Court rejected the use of statistical evidence to provide a pattern of discrimination.

Seth Rafkin, a partner in the New York and San Diego offices of Cooley LLP, pointed out that …

“The key threshold at issue in the Tyson and Wal-Mart cases was whether the positions and work experiences of class members were sufficiently similar such that the statistical evidence based on [a] sample of class members could reasonably be relied on as representative of the experience of other class members. In the Wal-Mart case, the Court found that the positions and experience of class members was so diverse that the statistical evidence could not be relied on as representative of the class’ experience. In contrast, the class in the Tyson case all worked at the same facility, performed similar work and were subject to the same policy.”

Twitter It!

NLRB Helping Nonunion Employees Protect Rights

Having followed and posted earlier about the Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille case — namely, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s 116040122 -- labor unionupholding of a National Labor Relations Board finding that posting and “liking” a criticism of Triple Play’s income-tax-withholding policies constitutes protected concerted activity —  this more recent post on LinkedIn caught my eye.

Especially its title: Why Union-Free Companies Should Be Very Concerned About This Particular Website … . For the record, here’s the actual site in question, coworker.org.

What also caught my eye was the fact that, according to the post (complete with an analysis by Fast Company worth reading), the NLRB has even dedicated a page on its own website explaining, for nonunion employees, what their rights are under the National Labor Relations Act. As that page states:

“The law we enforce gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the [NLRB] will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away. These rights were written into the original 1935 [NLRA] and have been upheld in numerous decisions by appellate courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

On the NLRB page, recent cases involving a range of industries and employees are highlighted on a map via pins that visitors to the site can hover over for summaries or — by clicking on the pins — full stories about the cases.

Workplacereport.com puts out this warning, that “as coworker.org garners more attention, it continues to grow; and, the more it grows, the more ability it has to do more than merely help nonunion employees with their nonunion issues.” It goes on:

“With coworker.org’s ability to collect data from any employee of any company who logs onto the site, it appears to be a ready-made tool for the co-founders’ former employer, the SEIU (or any other union, for that matter).”

Of course, as the website notes — similar to what many employment lawyers and workplace experts have said over the years — “one of the simplest strategies for any employer of any size to negate the effects coworker.org (or unions) might have on their company would be to identify and try to eliminate workplace issues before employees turn to the outside for change.”

But ask any of them, as well as your fellow HR practitioners, and it becomes apparent that anti-union proactivity is often easier to describe than carry out.

At the very least, Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, tells me in this earlier post, “gather your bragging points now; conduct vulnerability assessments,” with special focus on employees being treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and with robust employee-appreciation programs … those catch phrases “you often find in union petitions.”

His parting shot back in that April post is worth repeating here:

“[Bottom line, look closely at your people issues.] Are your people treating your people right? [Because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that] are almost always behind [employees being driven to unionize].”

Twitter It!

All Eyes on Volkswagen’s Amnesty for Answers

465782341 -- volkswagen2It’ll be interesting to see what comes of Volkswagen’s move to offer amnesty to all its bargaining-unit employees in hopes of uncovering just who was/is behind its emissions-cheating scandal.

According to a letter that went out Thursday from Herbert Diess, chief executive of the division that produces Volkswagen brand cars, employees have until Nov. 30 to come forward with information about who was responsible for installing software in 11 million diesel vehicles that disguised nitrogen-oxide output.

The letter, reviewed and reported on by the New York Times, says “people who provided information would not be fired or face damage claims [but] the company could not shield employees from criminal charges.”

In other words, the amnesty isn’t really designed for the really bad guys, “but rather, for the midlevel people who may have, without even knowing it, some relevant information,” Mike Koehler, a law professor at Southern Illinois University, told the Times.

It’s also, according to another legal source for that story — Alexandra Wrange, president of Trace International in Annapolis, Md. — “a tacit admission … that the usual reporting channels have been ineffective.”

You might call it a kind of pulling-out-all-the-stops kind of move, above and beyond the more commonplace no-retaliation policies contained in most whistleblowing programs, says Allan Weitzman, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based partner with Proskauer, whose list of specialties includes whistleblowing.

(At Volkswagen, it was an internal whistleblower who uncovered the false carbon-dioxide claims that the company made public last week. “German news media reports have said that internal investigators looking into the emissions-cheating software, which came to light in September, have been hampered by a reluctance among employees to come forward,” the Times story states.)

Weitzman joins in the general chorus of employment attorneys who consider Diess’ move new and different, to say the least.

“I know I’ve never heard of [this kind of corporate amnesty],” he says. “But these are unusual circumstances, and [as pointed out in the Times article as well], Volkswagen wants to show to governmental agencies that it has done everything it can to solve this problem; well, amnesty is pretty broad … I’d say ‘Yes, they have gone about as far as possible’ ” in this endeavor.

Is it the right move? Weitzman thinks so.

“I think it’ll work, too, if it has the support of the union, meaning [very simply] that the people who look to unions as their source of job security will participate in the amnesty program if their union supports it,” he says.

“And the union should support this,” he adds, “because the future of the union is tied to the future of Volkswagen, and if Volkswagen cannot solve this problem, it’s going to result in the unemployment of many, many union members.”

Twitter It!

Auto Workers’ Push for Pooling

The United Auto Workers is pushing for greater industry consolidation. No, I’m not referring to something along the lines of Fiat Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne’s on-again, off-again pursuit of merging with General Motors. I’m talking about employee healthcare.

ThinkstockPhotos-101922589A story in today’s Wall Street Journal titled “UAW Pitches Health-Care Co-op to Car Makers”  (subscription site) reports that the “United Auto Workers union is pushing Detroit car makers to put all their employees under one health-care umbrella, creating a powerful purchasing group that could upend traditional health-care markets.” It continues:

“The union’s idea would create a joint purchasing group for the three largest U.S. auto makers that would cover factory and white-collar workers and union-affiliated retirees. The group could total nearly 1 million members, a scale it believes would have unprecedented leverage in negotiating directly with hospitals, drug companies and others.

Assuming the idea even gets off the ground, it could take one to two years to set up and longer to generate significant savings, health-care experts said.”

As the WSJ story reports, “UAW President Dennis Williams previously has described the plan as a way for auto makers to gain more control over health-care expenses and win cost savings. He wants the purchasing group overseen by a board [consisting] of union and auto-industry executives. A prior effort to pull together employees of the three stalled in 2011 because auto makers weren’t interested in pursuing it.”

The UAW is currently negotiating a new four-year deal to replace the current contract, which is set to expire on Sept. 14.

I spoke to Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy for the National Business Group on Health in Washington, and asked him for his take on the UAW move.

Wojcik says he can’t comment on the union’s plans, since he doesn’t know the specifics, but adds that he certainly understands where the motivation is coming from. Plans, he says, are under a lot of pressure to reduce costs, especially with the ACA excise tax kicking in in 2018.

Still, Wojcik says he isn’t convinced the UAW pooling strategy would be the most effective way to address the cost issue.

“The problem with these efforts,” he says, “is [they involve] voluntary participation—so employers with success at controlling costs or lowering healthcare expenses end up not participating and those having trouble [on these fronts do participate]. Because of this, I don’t think the track record has been that successful.”

Pooling, he adds, has typically found greater success among smaller organizations.

The WSJ story also touches on the practice of direct contracting. “One option for the purchasing pool, say people familiar with the matter, would be for it to establish ‘centers of excellence … ,” the article says. It cites Lowe’s Cos., which has a deal with the Cleveland Clinic and flies employees to Ohio for heart surgeries at no cost to the worker.

Commenting on this, Wojcik notes NBGH’s just-released Large Employer Plan Design Survey reveals that respondents put direct contracting close to the bottom of initiatives having an impact on controlling costs.

Wojcik points out that there’s probably good reason for this. A number of factors need to be in place for direct contracting to work, including the employer needs to have a “significant market power, opportunities need to exist for improving care delivery and there needs to be a decent amount of provider competition.”

“It’s not just about negotiating a discount,” he says.

Twitter It!

With Union Petitions Up, Get Your Message Out … NOW!

Since sharing this blog post the day before the National Labor Relations Board’s “quickie-election rules” went into effect on April Union14, I’ve been waiting to see if the predictions shared therein would come to pass.

More specifically, would there be — as predicted by various employment attorneys I talked to — a surge in the number of representation petitions filed with the NLRB by unions just waiting for those rules to help them hurry up their process?

Well, I just got confirmation from NLRB spokesperson Jessica Kahanek that there’s been a 32-percent spike in union petitions lodged with her agency in one month since the rule’s enactment. Broken down, that’s 212 petitions from March 13 to April 13 and 280 from April 14 to May 14. An impressive and additional 104 petitions were filed between May 14 and May 27, she tells me. Spike indeed!

Kahanek also notes that elections are now taking place — on average — 23 days from the date of the petition. This duration is a dramatic shift from the 38-day average that existed under the previous rule.

What’s also interesting to note is that the petitions didn’t come flooding in starting on April 14. On the contrary, says Steve Bernstein, a Tampa, Fla.-based labor attorney with Fisher & Phillips, “in the first two weeks after the rule, the numbers of petitions filed were flat, maybe even down some; only in the last two to three weeks have we been seeing them really climbing.”

So what does that mean? It means even the unions needed some time to figure out all the new procedures contained in the new rules. “It’s been a learning curve for everyone,” Bernstein says.

What it all really means — to employers — is now’s the time to talk up your company and make no bones about stressing with employees that it’s a better place to work communicating directly with management than through third-party representation.

Bernstein calls this “front-loading the message.”

Employers, he says, “have the opportunity to use this [albeit shorter] period of time to take the initiative away from the union.”

Some companies, in fact, are getting ready for the NLRB before the NLRB even comes knocking. They’re getting all the new data being asked for — employee emails, phone numbers, work histories, job classifications, etc. — collected and collated now “so they’re positioned to be standing on ‘Go’ when the petition arrives and can use all their time getting their message out,” says Bernstein. He recommends that you:

“start from the standpoint that, with the new rules, comes a new petition form giving unions the opportunity to request the earliest election dates possible, usually two weeks out. So you, the employer, can posit the question, ‘Why is this union trying to move so fast on something so important to your lives and the lives of your families as this?’ “

In terms of the new administrative and disclosure requirements contained in the rules, he says, rather than focusing only on scrambling around trying to meet them all, think about taking this approach:

“In many circles, the kind of employee data they’re now demanding from employers would look like an invasion of privacy. So you can put out the immediate message, ‘They’re not even here yet and look at the personal information they already want on you. Why do they want all this from us?’ “

In other words, the NLRB has changed the rules, so you can too. (FYI, my earlier post, linked above, contains the NLRB’s position and purpose in the rule changes.)

You don’t even have to wait for a petition to start the conversation. In addition to getting all your data ducks lined up, you can join with the many companies Bernstein is already seeing “embracing the notion that it’s OK to talk about this, now, with employees,” sooner than later, he says.

Nothing wrong with telling your employees, “Let’s have this union dialogue now,” he says, especially in businesses and industries where unions are dominant. Some companies are even fashioning tailored, customized videos along these lines to go with their orientation processes, i.e., why no union is better than representation.

“You’re really trying to establish this line of communication, getting them used to hearing about this, so it doesn’t just sound like a defensive move after the petition has arrived,” Bernstein says.

So, to recap, your message to them: “Hey, it’s OK to talk about this now, folks!”

And my message to you: Ditto.

Twitter It!

The Mindfulness-Retaliation Connection

Two researchers from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School came up with an interesting connection 166198718 -- meditation2between mindfulness and employee retaliation that has me drawing a further connection of my own.

The Kenan-Flagler study by Ph.D. student Erin Cooke Long and Professor Michael S. Christian suggests practicing mindfulness at work, which can incorporate workplace meditation, can actually reduce retaliatory behavior in employees who feel treated unfairly. (Here’s the study’s abstract.)

I suppose this can be seen as intuitive, but it’s apparently the first time mindfulness and retaliation have been connected in any study. As Cooke Long describes it:

“When employees think they have an unfair boss or colleague or the organization is unfair, they might be tempted to seek retribution or act in ways to ‘even the score.’ Mindfulness helps them short-circuit emotions and negative thoughts so that they can respond more constructively.”

Which gets me to my additional connection: How bout keep them mindful and meditating, and perhaps you can keep the unions from knocking at your door? Perhaps we can add “incorporating mindfulness into your workforce” to the many suggestions experts and attorneys offered in a recent webinar I blogged about the day before the National Labor Relations Board’s “quickie-election” rule went into effect.

Everyone speaking in that webinar agreed the rule — which became effective April 14 — would increase union activity and win rates within the business community.

And as Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, said then, employers should be looking more closely at their people issues than ever before, because unhappy employees make for likely union members.

“Are your people treating your people right?” he said, because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that “are almost always behind” employees being driven to unionize.

At the risk of making another bold connection, my sources for this blog post on the importance and difficulty of bringing mindfulness into the workplace — including our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett — would concur that offering such a stress-reducer certainly sends the message that employees are being treated well.

And if the UNC study is to be believed, which I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be, perhaps mindfulness can also keep their minds off “getting back” at you through protected concerted activities.

Twitter It!

Get Set for the NLRB’s ‘Quickie-Election’ Rule!

If you thought April 15 was a date to keep you awake at night, the day before — April 14; that’s tomorrow, folks! — could be worse. 116040122 -- labor unionTomorrow is the day the National Labor Relations Board’s “ambush-election rules,” aka “quickie-election rules,” governing how union representation is voted on by employees, takes effect.

Late last month, I was made aware of this post at LaborUnionReport.com, pointing out (in pretty cryptic terms) that “as President Obama’s union attorneys controlling the National Labor Relations Board push through their so-called ‘ambush-election rules’ … the NLRB is conducting ‘practitioner’ training at NLRB offices and other locations (including a union office) across the country.”

The post says little else, but does include the PowerPoint presentation being used for the practitioners’ education. I found it somewhat interesting. You might too.

Meanwhile, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin Jr. did release early last week a guidance memo on modifications to organized-labor-representation procedures effective April 14 — specifically, how new cases will be processed from petition filing through certification. In his words,

“I am confident that the guidance provided herein will allow regions to implement the final rule effectively and efficiently.”

What effect these new rules will have remains to be seen, though Joel Barras, employment attorney at Reed Smith, says he’s pretty  confident they’ll “dramatically limit the time employers have to run pro-company campaigns.” As he puts it:

“I believe unions will now wait to file their union representation petitions until the new rules take effect. If I am right, and we see a high number of petitions filed in mid to late April, that would serve as an excellent indication that unions agree with employers that the new rules will dramatically improve the likelihood that employees will vote to join unions.”

In a webinar Friday by several Littler attorneys, addressing what more than one called this “new reality,” Tanja Thompson, Memphis, Tenn.-based office managing shareholder for Littler, confirmed that her office has seen a recent “slowdown” in the number of union petitions filed, indicating many are, indeed, probably waiting to file under the new rules, as Barras predicts.

“Make no mistake; this rule change is designed to see increases in union win rates,” she said. ” … We do anticipate accelerated activity starting April 14.”

She and the others shared cautionary tips for making sure nothing is missed in the new system, such as adhering to deadlines for supplying lists of personal contact and job information of all likely and eligible union members … and remembering that union notices will now be coming via email, not fax, and “unions don’t always get it right in who they email, yet that’s who’s being served,” said Thompson.

They also laid out all kinds of strategies for being proactive and not waiting to take action until a petition is filed under the new system, which is expected to change the current six-week election process to something closer to two-to-three weeks.

Action plans should include putting your employer statement out now on unions and how you view them, ensure supervisors and managers are comfortable talking with employees about that view, and ensuring all workers understand the value of their wages and benefits.

“My fear for employers,” said Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, “is they’ll be busy meeting the many requirements [of responding to a petition] at the expense of focusing on their [anti-union] campaign communication strategies.”

For a further frame of reference on what’s coming, here is our most recent post by Michael J. O’Brien on the “current ‘quickie’ kerfuffle,” as he calls it — namely, the vote on March 19 by the U.S. House of Representatives, passing a GOP-led resolution to overturn the rule. With Obama almost certain to veto it, the vote appears to have created hardly a wrinkle in the NLRB’s preparations, as I indicated above.

Here, too, is some good discussion of the GOP’s effect on the NLRB that Tom Starner raised in a January news analysis. Specifically, he writes, “while the NLRB has characterized its actions as ‘modernizing its processes,’ legal experts representing employers say the real impact will deny employers an adequate chance to stage an anti-union campaign prior to employee voting.”

So … “gather your bragging points now,” as Harrison said in the webinar. “Conduct vulnerability assessments,” with special focus on employees being treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and with robust employee-appreciation programs … those catch phrases “you often find in union petitions,” he said.

Bottom line, look closely at your people issues, said Harrison. “Are your people treating your people right?” Because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that “are almost always behind” employees being driven to unionize.

Twitter It!

About That NLRB Ruling

In a divided opinion yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that employees can use their company’s email system for the purpose of Section 7  union-organizing activities. The case was brought to the NLRB’s attention by the AFL/CIO, which brought a lawsuit against California-based Purple Communications over its policy banning employees from using company email for activities related to union organizing.

In ruling 3-2 in favor of the plaintiffs, the NLRB overturned its 2007 Register Guard decision, in which it gave companies the right to restrict employees’ use of company email for organizing purposes without eliminating their right to use work email for other personal purposes. The latest ruling is “responsive to the enormous technological changes that are taking place in our society,” the board wrote. The NLRB said its ruling is “carefully limited” and applies only to employees who have already been granted access to company systems for their own work. Employers are not required to let employees use work email for Section 7 activities, the Board wrote — indeed, it can ban work email from being used for these purposes during work- and non-work hours so long as it’s part of a total ban on non-work use of its email system.

However, Philip Miscimarra, one of the two board members who voted against the majority, said that technological advances mean that employees have plenty of electronic options other than company email for the purposes of union-related communication. “National uprisings have resulted from the use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter,” he said.

Jeffery Meyer, a labor and employment attorney with Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, says the ruling “opens the floodgates for a full attack on employer property rights.”

“What this decision does is to provide unions and employees with a legal foundation to argue that Section 7 rights now trump an employer’s property right in almost any circumstance,” Meyer writes in a brief on the ruling.

Employers should review and, if necessary, revise their policies on electronic devices and instruments to take advantage of the “caveats delineated in the Board’s decision,” he writes. Although it’s a drastic move, “strict yet clear prohibitions and/or controls on personal use of company email systems could prove to be the difference in an organizing campaign where the union might not otherwise be able to contact the entire workforce.”

A company’s failure to revise its policies “could provide unions with a very useful tool to organize their employees,” writes Meyer. “Purple Communications serves as concrete evidence that a union will not think twice to use an unlawful handbook policy to its advantage in order to seek a new election should the employer win the first go-round.”

Twitter It!