Organized Labor’s Big Day

April 5, 2012Articles
Authored by R. Scott Summers.


On April 30, 2012, just a few short weeks away, two critical changes that will affect just about every private sector employer are slated to go into effect. Whether your organization has a union, or is union-free, these changes could have important implications for your workplace policies and will affect the way you handle issues during union organizing campaigns.

As of April 30, 2012, most private sector employers1 – union and non-union - will be required to post a notice entitled “Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).” The original effective date for posting this notice was January 31, 2012, but that date was pushed back until this spring. Among other things, the notice informs employees that they have the right to:
  • organize a union
  • discuss wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment with co-workers 
  • strike and picket 
  • choose not to participate in such activities.

The notice also lists examples of unlawful employer conduct and provides information about how to file unfair labor charges against an employer.

None of the various legal challenges to this controversial National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) posting rule have yet been effective. Earlier this month a U.S. District Court Judge upheld the NLRB’s rule requiring the posting. The Judge noted among other things, that the employers had not established that they would suffer irreparable harm if the posting requirement were allowed to take effect. This was particularly the case, according to the judge, in light of her prior order invalidating the portion of the NLRB’s rule that made the mere failure to post the notice an unfair labor practice. The Judge also noted that the public interest also favored denying the employers’ requested injunction because the notice was intended to increase employees’ awareness of their rights, which the judge observed was “undoubtedly in the public interest.”There is another legal challenge to the posting rule pending in a federal District Court in South Carolina, but no decision has been issued in that case and there is no reason to expect one will be issued before April 30.

The poster is available on the NLRB's web site at www.nlrb.gov. Also, various businesses which offer reproductions of government-required employment postings have already developed products that incorporate the new NLRB posting.

In addition to the requirement of posting a notice of employee rights under the NLRA, the NLRB has recently confirmed its plan to launch a website designed to inform nonunion employees of their rights under the NLRA. The NLRB’s focus in launching the website is to reach and educate nonunion employees about their right to engage in protected, concerted activity under the NLRA. As a supplement to the website, the NLRB plans to distribute educational brochures containing examples of issues that have arisen in past and current cases before the NLRB. The brochures, which will be offered in English and Spanish, will be distributed through advocacy groups and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor.

Obviously these two initiatives taken in tandem may serve to push non-union workforces to consider unionization. Additionally, the increased awareness of the right to bring a complaint against an employer regardless of one’s union membership will certainly result is an increase in the number of complaints filed with the NLRB.

The other big change, also taking effect on April 30, 2012, is a new rule that will revamp aspects of the union election process. What will this mean for your business?

  1. elections will proceed quicker than ever before 
  2. you will have fewer opportunities to raise challenges throughout the election process

These rules illustrate the importance of engaging in union prevention efforts long before organizing begins.

The rule, popularly referred to as the “quickie elections” rule, will change the process for contesting union petitions and limit employers’ opportunities to challenge certain aspects of the election process before a union election. The NLRB’s goal is to speed up the election process by mandating that certain election issues be dealt with after the union election. (See our Jan. 4, 2012 insight NLRB’s New “Ambush Elections” Rule).

Eliminating pre-election appeals, limiting decisions on critical issues until after the election, and speeding up the election process, could substantially reduce the amount of time an employer has to communicate with its employees before an election. In fact, the election "campaign period" could be reduced to just a few weeks. Under the current rules, elections are usually scheduled at least a month after a union petition is filed.

A recent study conducted by the Heritage Group’s labor policy expert James Sherk estimated that the new election rules will dramatically increase the rate of unionization. Sherk cites a Bloomberg Government analysis to observe that a majority of workplace union elections are decided by five or fewer votes. What’s more, “cutting the time between a request for an election and the ballot increases the chances union supporters will prevail,” according to the study. Unions win 87 percent of elections held 11 to 15 days after a request, a rate that falls to 58 percent when the vote takes place after 36 to 40 days, according to the researchers.

The 11 to 15 day timeframe is very close to what the new NLRB rule is expected to achieve. The ambush election rule will trim the time between an election request and the election itself to 10 days or so, a significant drop from the current average of 31 days.

“If a broader set of elections were to occur more quickly,” wrote Bloomberg analysts Jason Arvelo and Ian Hathaway, “the likely outcome would be more organizing drives, a higher success rate for unions and ultimately more union membership.”

Practical Impact for Employers
In the meantime, what is the practical impact of these new rules on employers? To be sure, the new rules will result in employees being more aware of the NLRB and how to file unfair labor practice charges. They will also result in quicker elections in cases with contested unit and eligibility issues. Quicker elections certainly mean less time to communicate with employees during the election period.

Unions often plan organizing drives before they actually request a workplace election, while employers, who may not be aware of the effort, are forced to make their case only during the period between an election request and the actual election. Hence, shortening that period of time is more prohibitive to an employer’s ability to make the case against unionization than a union’s ability to lobby for it. Employees will hear the other side of the story only from management. Employers, not union organizers, will explain that unions often do not achieve their promised wage increases, but they always take up to 2 percent of workers’ wages in dues. Employers will also point out patterns of union corruption and clauses in union constitutions that levy stiff fines against workers who stray from union rules. Employers are free to tell workers what the union organizers do not.

Savvy employers should have strong employee relations policies and programs in place long before a petition. Such programs should establish open communication channels, provide for employee recognition, and implement competitive wages and benefits among other things. Implementing this type of program will not only help avoid a unionization drive in the first instance, but also will help build employee trust and establish efficient lines of communication that could be vital during a shortened pre-election period.

Employers should also consider training managers about permissible and prohibited conduct under the NLRA and conducting their own education programs, advising employees of their rights under the NLRA, and reminding employees of internal complaint procedures available to them.

Conclusion
2012 is already shaping up to be another eventful year at the NLRB. In coming insights we will further comment on the areas discussed here, as well as several other noteworthy trends. These include, among other things, the Board’s continual focus on social media cases and changes to their General Counsel’s willingness to defer to the grievance and arbitration process in some cases. Finally, Chairman Pearce’s stated desire for the Board to become known as “the resource for people with workplace concerns that may have nothing to do with union activities” promises a continuation of the Board’s focus on protected concerted activity cases in the non-union context. As always, we will continue to monitor and analyze these changes and their implications for employers.
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(1) Excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act are public-sector employees, agricultural and domestic workers, independent contractors, workers employed by a parent or spouse, employees of air and rail carriers covered by the Railway Labor Act, and supervisors.