Sometimes, using only one word can make all the difference between a lawful and unlawful statement. Washington University in Saint Louis learned this lesson the hard way when in late October 2017 Associate General Counsel for the NLRB’s Division of Advice Jayme L. Sophir instructed Region 14 to issue complaint, absent settlement, against the University.

The Advice Memorandum, released to the public on February 15, 2018, found the University violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act by threatening foreign graduate students with deportation if they elected a union and, later on, their union engaged in a strike. Specifically, the statement – “all foreign students will lose their visas and have to leave the country” – was unlawful because a strike would not automatically result with graduate students losing their visas. As labor practitioners know, employer predictions regarding unionization must be based on objective facts and, in general, be measured, reasonable and not overstate adverse consequences as such actions could be seen as restraining and coercing employees’ Section 7 rights.

Here, while a strike could potentially lead to these graduate students losing their visas and being deported, Associate General Counsel Sophir noted the University “overstated the requirements of the applicable regulations and the potential effects of those regulations on the affected graduate student employees.” Conversely, the other statements made by the University concerning immigration laws and potential consequences were found to be lawful because “they either set forth the exact language of the applicable Federal regulations or merely accurately conveyed the possibility that a strike ‘could’ lead to the loss of student visas.” Indeed, all of the statements made by the University would have likely been lawful if the word “will” was simply replaced with the word “could” in the statement at issue. The University, however, did not have to litigate the lawfulness of the statement because the Union chose to withdraw its unfair labor practice charge, resulting in the matter being closed.

Ultimately, this case serves as a helpful reminder that employers must be mindful of its communications with employees during a union organizing campaign and, particularly, seek competent legal counsel prior to taking any action during such times. If not, employers could find themselves in violation of the Act, except likely not have the good fortune of having the complaint against it withdrawn.

Carlos A. Torrejon is a former NLRB Attorney and an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Morristown office.