NLRB Abandons Poster Rule

Given the hostile climate toward employee rights in federal courts, it is not surprising that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has abandoned its efforts to require employers to post a notification informing workers of their rights to join together to improve their working conditions.

The NLRB announced this week that it will not file an appeal in the pro-business  U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two federal court decisions rejecting  the so-called poster rule.

The NLRB wanted private-sector employers to hang a poster in a conspicuous place (i.e. lunch room) informing workers of their rights under the 75-year-old National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Many American workers today, especially recent immigrants, are ignorant of their rights under the NLRA. The poster rule is also important for non-union workers who lack a designated bargaining representative. The NLRA can come into play in non-union workplaces when, for example, an employer fires a non-union worker for discussing a safety concern with a co-worker.

It is ironic that most private-sector employers already are required by federal law to post documents in the workplace informing workers of  their rights under Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, equal employment opportunity laws, etc.

The poster rule elicited immediate opposition from a broad coalition of national business groups after it was approved by the NLRB in 2011.

Twenty-one Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  to oppose the poster rule, including John Kline (R-Minn.) chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in South Carolina  ruled  last summer that the NLRB lacks the authority to require employers to post notices either electronically or physically in a conspicuous place. The court said “ we find no indication in the plain language of the Act that Congress intended to grant the Board the authority to promulgate such a requirement.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit earlier ruled that the poster rule violate employers’ free speech rights.

Here are the rights that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has worked so diligently to insure that American workers do not know they possess under the NLRA:

  •  Workers can organize a union to negotiate with employers concerning wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Workers can form, join or assist a union.
  • Workers can bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract setting wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions.
  • Workers can discuss terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with co-workers or a union.
  • Workers can engage in protected concerted activities with one or more co-workers to improve wages, benefits and other working conditions.
  •  Workers can choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.

 

Surveillance in the Workplace

OK for Employer, not Employee?

Whole Foods Market, Inc., the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods, has prevailed in a union  battle to overturn a store policy that prohibits employees from recording conversations.

Steven Davis, an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), recently issued a decision dismissing a complaint filed against the store by  the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 919, and Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago.

The union argued that the policy prevents workers from recording conversations related to protected activities, including allegedly unlawful statements made by supervisors.  Also, the union noted that recordings are valuable evidence in administrative or judicial forums in employment related matters.

“I agree,” wrote Judge Davis in his opinion, “ but the employee may present his contemporaneous, verbatim, written record of his conversation with the other party, and his own testimony concerning employment-related matters. Only electronic recordings of conversations is prohibited.”

Ironically, the policy in question also states that “many Whole Foods Market locations may have security or surveillance cameras operating in areas where company meetings or conversations are taking place, their purposes are to protect our customers and Team Members and to discourage theft and robbery.”

Judge Davis said the presence of company surveillance cameras does not make the policy unlawful because employees are advised of the presence of the cameras and the cameras address a legitimate business concern – to protect customers and employees and discourage theft.

The complaint alleged the policy violates Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, which makes it illegal for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in the exercise of their rights to organize collectively.

Whole Foods maintained the purpose of the policy is “to eliminate a chilling effect to the expression of views that may exist when one person is concerned that his or her conversation with another is being secretly recorded. This concern can inhibit spontaneous and honest dialogue especially when sensitive or confidential matters are being discussed.”  A violation of the policy, which applies to tape recorders, cell phones and any electronic device, results in “corrective action, up to and including discharge.”

Marc Ehrnstein, the global vice president for Whole Food’s team member services,  said the policy applies to employees during working time – not their break time – and extends to all areas of the store including the parking lot and the area in front of the store. He said an employee’s recording of picketing in front of the store would be a violation of the rule.

Ehrnstein testified at a hearing last summer that Whole Food’s “core values” and “culture” encourage employees  to “speak up and speak out” on many issues. For example, he said each store has a “town hall” meeting once a year where employees meet with regional management leadership without store management being present.  Ehrnstein said  workers would be reluctant to voice their opinions about store management if they knew that their comments were being recorded.

Whole Foods, which operates 351 stores and employs 76,000 workers, adopted the policy in 2001.

Federal Courts Disregard Longstanding Worker Rights

Workers continue to lose ground in federal courts, where judges are disregarding a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that says companies cannot require workers to sign away their right to bring class action arbitrations and lawsuits.

 The NLRB’s  administrative decision in January  served as a theoretical  counterpoint to an earlier 5-to-4  decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.

 The Concepcion case involved alleged false advertising by AT&T and a $30 claim by a California plaintiff, who sought to prosecute the case as  class  arbitration . As the  dissent noted in Concepcion: “What rational lawyer would have signed on to represent the Concepcions in litigation for the possibility of fees stemming from a $30.22 claim?”

 The Supreme Court majority held that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 preempts state laws that prohibit contracts from disallowing class action lawsuits  – which means that contracts can exclude class action arbitration. 

 The NLRB ruling involved national homebuilder D.R. Horton’s practice, begun in 2006, of forcing all employees to agree as a condition of employment, not to pursue class or collective litigation of claims in any forum –  arbitral or judicial.  In its ruling, the NLRB said it has long held –  “with uniform judicial approval” –  that the National Labor Relations Act “protects employees’ ability to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation.”  

According to Thompson Reuters’ journalist Nate Raymond,  courts generally are rejecting the NLRB decision, some on the grounds that the  Federal Arbitration Act controls, and others cite the Supreme Court’s Concepcion decision. For example, in recent months:

  •  U.S. District Judge Gene Pratter in Philadelphia agreed with Tenet Healthcare and confirmed an arbitrator’s finding that a nurse could not bring classwide wage-and-hour claims in arbitration. The nurse’s lawyer had cited D.R. Horton in arguing that the arbitrator had erred.
  •  U.S. District Judge D.P. Marhsall in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Aug. 1, 2012 concluded that the FAA trumped the NLRA. and compelled individual arbitration in a putative class action of guards suing Securitas Services Inc.   Marshall said that accepting the NLRB’s reasoning would mean favoring litigation over arbitration, in contrast to the federal policy of favoring arbitration.
  •  Employees at Waffle House Inc. cited D.R. Horton in an effort to convince U.S. District JudgeCarlos Murguia of Kansas City, Kansas, to not compel individual arbitration. They lost. “Although Concepcion may not speak directly to the issue before the court,” the judge wrote, “it does illustrate a guiding principle: arbitration agreements are enforceable even when they prohibit the use of a class action.”

 Thomas Reuter News Service reports that  judges in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia have refused to allow employee class actions to move forward on the basis of the NLRB’s holding, in cases against Jenny Craig, Citigroup, P.F. Chang’s and UBS, among others.

The Concepcion decision likely will have a devestating impact upon workers who are cheated by unscrupulous employers out of overtime pay or hourly wages.

“Class claims frequently offer the only vehicle for consumers or employees to challenge unlawful actions that cause limited damages to each individual while often reaping millions for business,” law professor Ann C. Hodges writes in an American Constitutional Society blog analysis of D.R. Horton. “… In the workplace, Fair Labor Standards Act cases seeking minimum wage or overtime payments are most likely to be abandoned on this basis and Horton involved such a claim, alleging that the nonunion employer misclassified employees as exempt from overtime pay.”

The Progressive States Network (PSN) in a recent report entitled, Where Theft is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States, estimates that more than 60 percent of low-wage workers suffer wage violations each week. On average, the PSN reports, low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year. For low-wage workers, that amounts to 15% of their annual income, at average earnings of $17,616 per year.

Federal judges are appointed for life (in good behavior) and earn annual salaries of $174,000..

* See earlier reporting by this blog on federal court judges’ hostility to employment discrmination lawsuits.

Business Opposes the NLRB ‘Poster Rule’

What They Don’t Want You to Know …

A melodrama is being played out in federal court about whether American workers should be informed of rights that they have possessed for 70 years under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Most workers think the NLRA pertains only to union organizing but it provides most workers the right to join together to improve their wages and working conditions with or without a union. The NLRA can come into play, for example, when an employer fires a non-union employee(s) for discussing a safety concern or other concerns about working conditions.

Employers are spending millions to prevent workers from knowing their rights!

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a rule last summer that would have required most private sector employers to post a notice on Nov. 14, 2011 informing all workers of their rights under the NLRA.  This is called the NLRB “Poster Rule.” There was an immediate outcry from business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and Associated Builders and Contractors (all of which filed lawsuits to block the rule).

Twice delayed, the rule was scheduled to go into effect on April 30, 2012. That’s not going to happen now because of recent federal court rulings in multiple lawsuits. Here are the legal developments:

  • The  U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit  in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2012 issued a temporary injunction prohibiting implementation of the rule, pending appeal.
  • U.S. District Judge David Norton of South Carolina ruled on April 13, 2012 that the labor board went beyond its legal authority when issuing the rule.
  • U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2012 ruled that the NLRB had the authority to adopt the poster rule, though she said the NLRB exceeded its authority with respect to certain penalty penalties for failing to comply with the rule.

The NLRB says the notice is needed because “many employees protected by the NLRA are unaware of their rights under the statute.”   Requiring employers to post the notice would, according to the NLRB, “increase knowledge of the NLRA among employees, in order to better enable the exercise of rights under the statute.”

Most union workers are aware that the NLRA protects their right to organize but non-union workers may have no idea that the NLRA also protects them,  whether they want to join a union or not. Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” not only for self-organization but also “for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection. . . .”

The broad protection of Section 7 applies with particular force to unorganized employees who, because they have no designated bargaining representative, must “speak for themselves as best they [can].”  NLRB v. Washington Aluminum Co., 370 U.S. 9, 14, 82 S.Ct. 1099, 8 L.Ed.2d 298 (1962).

At this point, it is anyone’s guess whether  the NLRA posters will ever see the fluorescent light of break rooms in businesses and factories around the country.  I suggest workers print out this article or an equivalent and (anonymously) post it on their employee bulletin board.