This past Monday, April 30, marked the conclusion of a weeklong strike conducted by Columbia graduate students at the University’s campus. Timing, as people say, is sometimes everything – especially in an ongoing labor dispute – and here these graduate students scheduled a strike for the last – and busiest – week of the semester.

As such, the strike was expected to be problematic for both professors who rely on graduate students to teach classes, perform research, and grade papers and exams, and for undergraduate students who attend these classes and anticipate receiving grades in a timely fashion. Indeed, there is no denying that the strike was at least somewhat disruptive as reports indicated that several hundred students and professors either moved classes off campus or cancelled them altogether. This, coupled with the fact that the turnout for the strike was greater than expected, is something the union likely considers a victory (in addition to the outside support received from the likes of President of Ireland Michael Higgins, U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Sex and the City alumna turned NY gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon). In fact, according to an article by the Columbia Daily Spectator (the weekly student newspaper of the University), union organizers and graduate student leaders have already pledged to strike again at some point in the next academic year and have even discussed public demonstrations during graduation ceremonies.

Still, the University did not blink and it proceeded with business as usual over the course of the weeklong strike. However, as explained in a prior blog post by my colleagues, the University is still currently waiting – and likely hoping – for the graduate students’ union (Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Automobile Workers) to file unfair labor practice charges against it for refusing to bargain over an initial contract. This would then start a litigation and appeals process before the Board and federal court of appeals on the issue of whether graduate students are statutory employees under the Act and, perhaps, even lead to a Supreme Court decision that would settle this matter for the last time. But, doing all of this takes a lot of time and money and that, as well as the fear of an adverse decision, are likely to blame for the union’s failure to file any ULP charges.

Moving forward, unless the University changes its tune and decides to start bargaining with the union (which, at this point, there is a better chance of the Jets winning the Super Bowl!), do not be surprised if similar actions are undertaken by these graduate students down the road. All of this, however, may end up being inconsequential if the proper case comes before this Republican-controlled NLRB and the 2016 Columbia University Board decision that started this mess is overturned. But, with more and more graduate student unions across the country withdrawing their petitions in order to avoid becoming such a vehicle for overturning precedent, it is unclear exactly when this will happen.

Nevertheless, good things do come to those who wait, and ultimately I believe Columbia University – along with the several other private institutions across the country refusing to bargain with their respective graduate student unions – will see the fruits of their labor rewarded when this Board reverses course once again and finds that graduate students are not employees under the Act. Stay tuned.

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

On April 20, 2018, the National Labor Relations Board, by adopting an ALJ’s decision, held that employees who replied in agreement to another employee’s critical group email about the employer’s workplace were engaged in protected concerted activities under the Act. The email discussed wages, work schedules, tip policies, working conditions, and management’s treatment of employees – all of which are protected topics of conversation as they encompass workers’ terms and conditions of employment. Notably, the email specifically addressed the other employees and advised that it was illegal for “management to intimidate” them, among other remarks.

Still, in the course of investigating, the employer ended up terminating each employee who responded positively to the critical email. The employer argued that these employees were not terminated for their responses, but rather were terminated for refusing to be interviewed by the restaurant regarding their concerns about the email and for skipping/walking out on scheduled shifts. In essence, the employer contended that the ALJ expanded the reach of protected concerted activity by finding concerted insubordination to be protected.

Ultimately, the Board held that neither the critical email nor the employees’ responses – which included such statements as “Thank you for standing up for us” and “I agree a 100% as well” – were egregious enough to lose the protections of the Act. The Board further found that the employer’s purported reasons for discharge were pretextual in nature. As such, the Board ordered the restaurant reinstate these employees to their prior positions, provide them with backpay for lost wages, and hang a notice posting at the job location (though compliance in terms of reinstatement and notice posting may be difficult since the restaurant has since closed).

In sum, this case serves as a helpful reminder to tread lightly whenever your employees are discussing terms of employment like wages, working conditions, and their general treatment at work, regardless of the forum (e.g., in-person, social media, or a group email). Here, the restaurant’s reaction to this critical email, and the employees’ responses, was less than ideal as it resulted in the employer terminating each employee within two days of responding to the email.  Notwithstanding legitimate reason(s) for discipline, the optics of this case placed the employer in an uphill battle from the beginning. And this, of course, would likely not have been the outcome had the employer contacted experienced labor attorneys prior to taking any action.

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

Though it may come as a surprise to some employers, the NLRB generally recognizes the right of employees to wear union insignia (pins with union logos, etc.) while at work.  This rule applies to hospitals, but the Board and the courts, in recognition of the sensitive nature of working in medical facilities, have restricted employees’ rights to wear union insignia in “direct patient care areas.”  A recent case, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, 366 NLRB No. 66 (April 20, 2018), addressed this rule as it applies to hospitals, but also provided a signal that the Board, now with 3-2 Republican-appointed majority, may be willing to change the rule in a future case.

Section 7 of the NLRA grants employees the “right to … form, join, or assist labor organizations … and to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”  Section 7 has been construed to give employees the right to engage in activity to advance a union cause, including wearing union insignia to demonstrate their support for a union seeking certification or to further its bargaining aims once certified as the employees’ exclusive representative.

Section 7 rights, however, are balanced with the rights of employers to operate their businesses and manage their property.  Under this balancing test, an employer might be able to restrict an employee from wearing an entire outfit covered in union decals, assuming it had a neutral uniform policy.  But, an employer would have great difficulty in attempting to ban a small union pin worn on an employee’s lapel.  The Board has held that an employer seeking to assert a complete ban on union insignia must show “special circumstances,” usually involving a unique set of facts that are not normally present at most places of employment.  Regular uniform policies will not meet this stringent test.

In the medical realm, the balancing test is not applied and, instead, the Board looks to whether the employer’s prohibition on union insignia applies to “direct patient-care areas” or other areas of the hospital in question.  In Long Beach, the Board found that the Hospital’s rule prohibiting union insignia was overbroad because, by its own terms, it was not limited to “direct patient-care areas.”

A bright-line rule against union insignia in direct patient-care areas can streamline the discussion of the legality of a “no-pin” rule and simplify the law for all parties.  By contrast, the traditional balancing test demands that employers show specific facts to demonstrate that their interests override the Section 7 rights of employees.  The Long Beach decision, therefore, was not controversial because it merely applied the test applicable to medical facilities.

However, the (very) short discussion of uniform policies at the end of Member Emanuel’s dissenting opinion highlighted a long-standing disagreement between Democratic and Republican Board members about whether uniform policies constitute “special circumstances” that are strong enough to overcome employees’ Section 7 rights.  Emanuel found that one aspect of the employer’s policy, which applied to name badge lanyards, was limited to direct patient-care areas.  He, therefore, believed that that portion of the rule should have been upheld.  However, Emanuel noted that even if the lanyard rule applied to non-patient care areas, he would have found the restriction lawful as part of a neutral uniform policy.  Emanuel’s inclusion of this topic most likely constitutes a signal to practitioners that the Republican-majority Board will be more receptive to arguments from employers that uniform policies are sufficient to justify a prohibition on union insignia at work.  If this signal proves correct, the Board may be ready to allow employers, especially hospitals, to restrict the wearing of union insignia at work.  Stay tuned.

Andrew MacDonald is an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Philadelphia office.

Undergraduate resident advisors usually wield a lot of power over university residence halls and those who occupy them. You likely know this already if you were ever a college freshman living in the dorms and received a write-up or warning from your RA. But, for those who do not know, RAs – who are often only slightly older than the college students they oversee – are essentially there to supervise their peers living in dorms and make sure nothing (too) crazy happens. Last week, however, an NLRB Regional Director decided to give RAs at Reed College a right many of them probably did not even consider until recently: the opportunity to unionize.

Pursuant to the Board’s 2016 Columbia University Decision, which entitled university student workers at private campuses – both graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants – the right to collectively bargaining, the Regional Director found these RAs were statutory employees under the Act and ordered an election take place. The Regional Director concluded RAs provide a service for compensation, are under Reed College’s control and supervision and, ultimately, that there is no compelling policy reason to exclude them from coverage under the Act.

On the other hand, Reed College argued that Columbia University was wrongly decided and, actually, was not applicable because RAs are not teaching or research assistants. The College also argued that the RAs’ main focus was supporting and mentoring fellow students and that this aspect of their job was inseparable from their role as students, not employees. Notwithstanding these legitimate points, the Regional Director unsurprisingly rejected the College’s arguments. This was unsurprising because Columbia University is still the law of the land and RAs, like teaching and research assistants, are paid for their services, apply and train for the position, and undergo performance reviews. Thus, RAs would have likely garnered a similar finding by the Board who decided Columbia University.

Until the Board finds the proper vehicle to overturn this Obama-era precedent, we can likely expect other subsets of students paid for services at private universities to attempt to unionize as well. Still, the clock is ticking on Columbia University and this fact is not lost on unions attempting to organize students across the country. Indeed, unions at several private universities are now electing to withdraw their representation petitions for fear that a Republican-controlled Board will use their case to overturn Columbia University. Instead, these unions will attempt to pressure these institutions and seek voluntary recognition, a somewhat baffling choice because private universities have long rejected this option and will likely continue to do so (with the exception of only one private institution).

This union action is likely only delaying the inevitable, but, in the end, only time will tell whether Board precedent concerning higher education organizing will flip-flop once again.  Stay tuned.

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

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.

Graduate students at most private universities have been allowed to unionize since the 2016 decision of the NLRB in Columbia University.  This decision was controversial because the employee status of graduate students has flip-flopped over time, depending on whether members appointed by Democratic or Republican Presidents controlled the Board.  Since 2016, the makeup of the Board has shifted from a Democratic majority to Republican control.  While Democratic appointees generally support the notion that graduate students should be considered employees, Republican appointees do not.  Thus, it is highly likely that graduate students’ status before the eyes of the Board will change, if a University brings a challenge.

However, for Columbia University it is not that simple because the Board has already ruled on the merits of graduate student employee status, and it recently approved the election last December.  Columbia cannot simply ask the Board to reverse itself because the Board’s membership has changed.  Rather, Columbia must first refuse to bargain with the United Auto Workers Union (“UAW”), the representative of its graduate students, and rely on the UAW to file a refusal to bargain charge with the Board.  This Columbia has already done.  In a recent letter, Columbia notified the union that it will not bargain with the UAW regarding a first contract for Columbia’s graduate students.  The Board would then hear the matter, and likely conclude that Columbia did in fact violate the National Labor Relations Act (“the Act”) and order Columbia to bargain.   This in turn will permit Columbia to challenge the Board’s ruling that Columbia’s graduate students are employees under the Act before a United States Circuit Court of Appeals, presumably the D.C. Circuit.

The outcome of this looming appeal will cast a long shadow on graduate student organizing across the country.  If one of the parties to the appeal is unhappy with the result, the matter could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which would settle this matter for good.

Regardless, how a U.S Court of Appeals decides the matter, expect the Trump Board to reverse course and once again find that graduate students are primarily students rather than employees and conclude that they are guaranteed the right to organize under the Act.

Andrew MacDonald is an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Philadelphia office.

Chip Zuver is an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Los Angeles office.

On January 29, 2018, the DC Circuit remanded a 2016 NLRB decision – Grill Concepts Servs., Inc., 364 NLRB No. 36 (2016) back to the Board for reconsideration of several employee handbook violations found unlawful under the now-replaced Lutheran Heritage standard in light of the Board’s new standard recognized in Boeing Co., 365 NLRB No. 154 (2017).

As explained in a previous Alert, the prior standard considered work rules unlawful if employees would “reasonably construe” them to interfere with union or other protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the Act.  Until this past December, the Obama Board unreasonably interpreted and applied this decision for several years. That, however, changed in Boeing when the Board adopted a balancing approach that considers “the nature and extent of the potential impact” on Section 7 rights and the employer’s “legitimate justifications” for the rule.

Fast forward to this case and the DC Circuit has agreed to remand several work rules the Board previously found unlawful under the now-overruled “reasonably construe” standard.  These rules, contained in the restaurant’s employee handbook, include a “Team Member Relations/Positive Culture” rule requiring employees to interact respectfully with management, an “Online Communications” rule, and a “Team Member Conduct While Representing the Restaurant” rule (just to name a few). And while it is not unusual for a federal court of appeals to remand a matter back to an agency, especially when encountered with a change in policy by said agency, this situation should help instruct employers previously found to have unlawful work rules and currently in the midst of an appeals process.

This decision to remand will also allow the Board to give more guidance to employees and employers alike by actually applying the new standard to different facts and circumstances than those examined in the Boeing case. Yet, the clear guidance we all desire – but at times hardly get – can only happen when John Ring is confirmed by the Senate and gives the Board a 3-2 Republican-majority once again. Until then, any case taken up by a four-member Board evenly divided among party lines will likely end up deadlocked 2-2 and possibly constrain the application of the new Boeing standard.

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

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that an employer does not necessarily violate the National Labor Relations Act by maintaining a facially neutral work rule, policy or handbook provision that could be reasonably construed to interfere with union or other protected concerted activity protected under Section 7.

The 3-2 decision in The Boeing Company, handed down on Dec. 14, overrules Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, in which the NLRB declined to consider the employer’s justification for a facially neutral rule or the extent the rule might burden Section 7 activity.

During the Obama administration, the NLRB routinely applied the Lutheran Heritage rule to invalidate facially neutral employer rules adopted and applied for legitimate business reasons unrelated to an employee’s Section 7 activity. Examples of Section 7 activity would include the employees’ right to unionize or discuss wages and working conditions.

Now, in The Boeing Company, the NLRB has added leeway for employers by holding that enforcement of a facially neutral rule will not be deemed unlawful simply because an employee could “reasonably construe” the rule to interfere with Section 7 activity. Rather, the NLRB will apply a balancing test that considers “the nature and potential impact of the rule” on Section 7 activity and the employer’s “legitimate justification” for the rule. The NLRB will evaluate the rule from the perspective of the employee.

Pursuant to this balancing, employer rules will fall into one of three categories.

Category I Rules – those the NLRB concludes are generally lawful to maintain either because (i) the rule “does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA [Section 7] rights, or (ii) the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.” The NLRB provided two examples: a rule requiring employees to engage in “harmonious interactions and relationships necessary to comply with basic standards of civility” (basic civility rules), and the no-camera/photography policy at issue in The Boeing Company.

Category II Rules – those requiring scrutiny by the NLRB on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the rule’s adverse effect on Section 7 rights outweighs the employer’s legitimate justification for the rule. The NLRB declined to provide an example of such a rule.

Category III Rules – those the NLRB generally finds unlawful to maintain because the rule predictably has an adverse impact on Section 7 rights that outweighs any employer justification for the rule. Category III rules include those that prohibit employees from discussing their wages or benefits with one another.

Applying its new test, the NLRB concluded that Boeing’s facially neutral policy that restricts the use of camera-enabled devices on Boeing property was a lawful Category I rule. The NLRB noted that although the no-camera rule might in some circumstances potentially effect employees’ exercise of their Section 7 rights, this adverse impact was comparatively slight since the vast majority of pictures or images blocked would be unrelated to any protected activity.

Moreover, the NLRB concluded that the potential adverse impact on Section 7 activity was outweighed by Boeing’s business justifications for the no-camera rule. According to the NLRB, Boeing’s justification was especially compelling because the rule is necessary to maintain accreditation to perform classified work for the federal government, to comply with Boeing’s duty to prevent the disclosure of export-controlled materials to unauthorized persons, to protect proprietary information and to minimize the risk that personally identifiable employee information would be released. The NLRB said that it would likely find no-camera/photography rules lawful under category I even with less compelling business justifications.

Employers are now able to lawfully implement and maintain facially neutral work rules that have the potential to interfere with Section 7 activity so long as the rule has a direct and immediate relationship to the employer’s business and enforcement of the rule is unlikely to have much effect on Section 7 rights.  Even with category I rules, the devil is in the details. One employer’s  no-camera rule might be lawful while another’s might not, depending on the language of the rule, the justification for the rule and the circumstances in which the rule was implemented.

Recently, a majority of employees at the news websites DNAinfo and Gothamist decided to join the Writer’s Guild union to bargain collectively over their terms of employment. In response, the owner of the websites decided to shut down its operations completely. This begs the question: can a business close its doors in response to its employees voting to join a union? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to that question is, with few exceptions, yes.

Picketing Image

In general, the National Labor Relations Act prevents businesses from retaliating against employees for engaging in protected activities, including voting to join a union. However, the United States Supreme Court held in 1965 that closing a business in response to union activity is “not the type of discrimination which is prohibited by the Act.” Textile Workers v. Darlington Mfg. Co., 380 U.S. 263 (1965). In Darlington, the Court essentially found that the law

does not reach the act of purposefully liquidating a business because restraining a business from taking such an action was too “startling … [to] entertain.” Fundamentally, the rule announced in Darlington is premised on the rationale that an employer that leaves the sphere of business entirely does not gain any advantage by shedding union-represented employees. While this rule may sound odd, given that employers cannot discriminate against employees for their union activities, the law simply does not prevent an employer from going out of business, even when the closing is based solely on anti-union sentiment.

As is usually the case, there are exceptions to this rule. An employer cannot close a facility due to union activity in order to inhibit unionization at other plants. One can imagine a situation where a non-union employer with multiple facilities closes the first plant to unionize in order to make a statement to all of its employees. Where a decision to close is based on anti-union animus and aimed at employees at other locations, such a closing will be deemed to be unlawful.

All that being said, the closing of a business only provides a union with limited grounds to contest a closing as unlawful. In this case of DNAinfo and Gothamist, the Writers Guild most likely need to limit any claims at the NLRB to that theory.

Andrew MacDonald is an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Philadelphia office.

What goes around, comes around, they say, right? Not so fast said one NLRB Administrative Law Judge on November 22, 2017, when she held that the Communication Workers of America, Local 1101, violated Sections 8(b)(1)(A) and 8(b)(2) by attempting to cause Verizon Communications, Inc. to discriminate against former union member Sidra Epps for crossing the picket line. The Union and Company had a collective bargaining agreement that expired in August 2015 and, after not coming to terms on a successor agreement, the Union began a strike in April 2016 that involved nearly 40,000 employees stretching from Maine to Virginia. Expectedly, Ms. Epps, who had been a Union member since 1996, was assigned picket duty but she found this task to be too arduous due to her various health conditions. Unexpectedly, however, the Union decided that this 20-year member’s strike activity was not sufficient to warrant her receipt of strike benefits, effectively leaving Ms. Epps without any resources during the unknown duration of the strike (it lasted approximately seven-weeks and was considered a success by both the local and international). As a result, Ms. Epps resigned from the Union and crossed the picket line.

In the weeks following the conclusion of the strike, several Union officials attempted, either in person or by phone, to get Verizon to transfer Ms. Epps from the Company’s Manhattan location where she worked throughout her time with the Company. Ultimately, while the ALJ recognized that the record was devoid of direct evidence showing the Union attempted to cause Ms. Epps’s transfer, the ALJ credited the testimony of the Verizon official repeatedly solicited to move Ms. Epps over the inconsistent testimony proffered by Union officials. Notably, the ALJ also relied on inconsistencies between the Union’s position statement provided to the Region in response to the unfair labor practice charge and the Union’s testimony offered on the day of trial.

Simply put, the Union was caught red handed in attempting to persuade Verizon to transfer Ms. Epps for crossing the picket line after she was denied the most important benefit afforded to her during a strike as a bargaining unit member: a benefit to subsidize her loss of wages. Making matters worse, the Union apparently failed to have a full grasp of the facts before submitting their position statement and these inconsistencies were highlighted at the hearing. It should also be noted that Verizon would have been in violation of Section 8(a)(3) of the Act if it acquiesced to the Union’s transfer requests of Ms. Epps.

In sum, this ALJ decision may not deter this type of union misconduct that occurs more often than labor bosses are willing to admit, but hopefully this case does shed some light on how resentful and spiteful some unions can be (even towards their own).

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