Earlier this week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision (Purple Commc’ns Inc) giving employees the right to use employers’ email systems for non-business purposes—including union organizing. This ruling overturns the Board’s 2007 decision in Register Guard, and opens up yet another front in the partisan Board’s war against employers.
In its decision, the Board declared the analysis in Register Guard to be “clearly incorrect,” and one that focuses “too much on employers’ property rights and too little on the importantance of email as a means of workplace commutation.” As a result of this ruling, agues the Board, the NLRB “failed to adequately protect employees’ rights under the Act” and abdicated its responsibility to “adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life.” Indeed, throughout its analysis, the Board justifies its ruling by referencing email’s new role as the “primary means of workplace discourse.”
Having dismantled Register Guard, the Board will now adopt a “presumption that employees who have been given access to the employer’s email system in the course of their work are entitled to use the system to engage in statutorily protected discussions about their terms and conditions of employment while on nonworking time.”
In an attempt to mollify employers, the Board offers the following three limitations on employee’s ability to use email for organizing purposes:
- This decision applies only to employees who have been granted access to the employer’s email system in the course of their work; employers are not required to provide such access
- Employers may justify a total ban on non-work use of email by demonstrating that special circumstances make the ban necessary to maintain production or discipline.
- This decision does not address nonemployees or any other type of electronic communication.
These limitations, however, offer little solace to employers already struggling to comply with the avalanche of union-friendly regulations churned out by an increasingly hostile NLRB.
A Powerful Dissent
The Board’s decision in Purple Commc’ns Inc., is unprecedented. As Board Member Philip Miscimarra notes in his dissent, “The [National Labor Relations] Act has never previously been interpreted to require employers, in the absence of discrimination, to give employees access to business systems and equipment for NLRA-protected activities that employees could freely conduct by other means.” Furthermore, it is all but impossible “to determine whether or what communications violate restrictions against solicitation during working.”
Member Johnson, who penned his own 32-page dissent, hammered the majority’s decision for essentially forcing employers to subsidize speech in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Johnson argues, “The First Amendment violation is especially pernicious because the Board now requires an employer to pay for its employees to freely insult its business practices, services, products, management, and other coemployees in its own email. All of this is now a matter of presumptive right…”
Looking forward, Johnson’s dissent warns that “Taken to its extreme, the majority’s…rationale would just as easily apply to taking over an employer auditorium, or conference room in the middle of the workday during an employer presentation/conference.
The Road Ahead
On a practical level, however, employers must now re-evaluate their internal rules and regulations regarding employee use of company email. Specifically, Purple Commc’ns Inc has now rendered most employee handbooks obsolete; employers should, over the next few weeks, review their employee email communications policy, and contact their labor counsel to examine how this stunning new decision will impact existing company policies.Read More
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined the DC Circuit and Third Circuit in holding President Barack Obama’s recess appointments of three NatioObama NLRBnal Labor Relations Board members were unconstitutional.
The dispute arises from three NLRB appointments the President made on January 4, 2012—appointments made while the Senate was on a holiday break but still in session. Although the administration claimed that “the break qualified as a recess because there were not enough senators at work to conduct business,” the Fourth Circuit—in addition to previous holdings by the DC Circuit and the Third Circuit—disagreed. Specifically, the court held that “the framers of the Constitution meant to limit recess appointments to the period between congressional sessions, and that’s how it was done until a 1921 attorney general’s opinion.”
As a result of this decision, and the previous circuit court decisions, hundreds of NLRB decisions may possibly be invalidated.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the D.C. case.Read More
On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued another decision against the National Labor Relations Board. This time, the court found that the NLRB had exceeded its authority when it issued the rule requiring employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act to post a notice informing workers of their right to unionize. (This same court, in January, 2013, invalidated the NLRB recess appointments made by President Obama; the NLRB has appealed that decision, Noel Canning v. NLRB, to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
In this most recent decision, National Association of Manufacturers v. NLRB, 717 F.3d 947 (2013), the court concluded that the NLRB’s rule was in violation of the National Labor Relations Act because it subjected an employer to an unfair labor practice for the failure to post this notice; and because it infringed upon the First Amendment right to free speech by forcing a company to disseminate a view that it did not agree with (i.e., the right to unionize).
Section 8(c) of the National Labor Relations Act grants employers the right to express “any view, argument or opinion, or dissemination thereof, whether in written, printed, graphic or visual form.” As long as there is no threat of reprisal, these communications are protected from being treated as unfair labor practices. The court stated that the NLRB’s rule violated Section 8(c) because “the right to disseminate another’s speech necessarily includes the right to decide not to disseminate it.”
While this decision represents another significant setback to the NLRB, the court’s decision also raises the possibility that its rationale could be extended to other federal notice-posting requirements that have been imposed on employers by various agencies (i.e., OSHA and the EEOC). It remains to be seen whether this decision will generate that type of litigation.Read More