Tag Archives: labor law

A Clue to the NLRB’s Future Focus?

In regulatory action last week, the current board of the National Labor Relations Board not-so-subtly identified several areas where the Board wants to reverse course. Specifically, on October 16, 2018, the Board’s General Counsel released four advice memorandums issued during the Obama administration addressing several topics, including dress codes, replacement of striking employees, and video recordings of workplace strikes.

It is uncommon for advice memos to be released, especially those from prior administrations.  Most times, such releases happen after a matter has been resolved or the General Counsel has directed a region to dismiss a case. When memos are released, it is because the Board wants to draw attention to a trending topic or point of emphasis. In this instance, the Board released advice memos that were quite favorable to labor unions and workers:

  • In two advice memos involving Walmart dating to 2013, the Board’s General Counsel at that time recommended that the regional director bring unfair labor practices when the retailer (1) told a plainclothes security guard that he could not wear union clothing while undercover; and (2) prohibited workers from wearing union insignia shirts and then disciplined them for engaging in a work stoppage (which the General Counsel opined was not an unprotected sit-in strike);
  • In a different 2013 memo, the General Counsel found that Boeing acted unlawfully when it recorded union solidarity marches that happened on its property while it also had a rule in its employee handbook that blocked employees from using cameras on its property; and
  • In another advice memo issued in early 2017, the then-General Counsel concluded a California fishery committed an unfair labor practice when it unlawfully replaced striking employees by giving temporary employees permanent positions.

These memos are noteworthy since the current General Counsel, Peter Robb, and the Board at large are unlikely to support the positions espoused in the Obama era memos. For instance, in December 2017, the Board has changed course in the Boeing matter, concluding that the Board’s previous edicts on handbooks gave too much credence to employees’ rights and too little to employers’ interests.

Considering the reversal in Boeing matter, the fact that the General Counsel released the other advice memos on the same day potentially signals those advice memos do not reflect the Trump-era General Counsel or Board’s position. For that reason, employers may wish to challenge similar unfair labor practice findings in other settings.

Still, although these advice memos may be a relic of the Obama-era Board, another administration’s Board could renew the legal theories and positions contained in the advice memos. Thus, at the very least, employers should remain mindful of the views taken in the advice memos and consider potential protective steps.

John Getty*
jgetty@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6622
*Admitted in Louisiana and Georgia

Unleashing Weingarten Rights

When conducting investigations of employees in a unionized workforce, employers often feel like the lion tamer in the cage with nothing but a whip and stool between them and legal jeopardy. Unfortunately, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board, In re Circus Circus Casinos, may have just taken the stool away and, in doing so, created a real circus.

The National Labor Relations Act has been interpreted to allow employees to request preferred union representation for investigatory interviews that may reasonably lead to discipline. Up until [this] Circus, this right was understood to arise only if an employee requested representation. Moreover, it was well confirmed that the employee’s selection of a representative could not be used to delay an employer’s investigation. In fact, as recently as September 2017, when the NLRB released to the public an advice memorandum addressing Weingarten rights, in which it noted that:

“[I]f the employee requests an unavailable representative, it is the employee’s obligation to request an alternative available representative in order to remain under Weingarten’s protections; the employer is not required to postpone the interview, secure an alternate representative, or otherwise accommodate the employee’s specific request.”

Nonetheless, in Circus Circus the panel broke with these seemingly settled principles.

So, what led to the three-ring circus of Circus Circus? First, employer directed an engineering department temporary employee to be fitted with a respirator to comply with OSHA regulations. Citing anxiety, the employee advised the third party that was fitting the employee that he wanted to speak with a doctor. The third party denied this request and advised the employer that the temporary employee refused to cooperate.  The employer suspended the employee pending an investigation.

Subsequently, the employer’s HR representative spoke with the employee, informing him that he was to report for a “due process” meeting the next day. The HR representative advised the employee “that if he wanted Union representation that he needed to bring the steward with him.” The employee repeatedly called and left a message with his union about representation for the meeting, but he never received a return call.

The day of the meeting, the employee appeared at the employer’s facility, walking past where the union steward worked. The employee, however, did not attempt to speak with the shop steward. Instead, the employee looked around the HR representative’s office before entering, allegedly searching for a union representative. Nevertheless, no union representative was there. When the meeting began, everyone agreed that the employee stated:

“I called the Union three times [and] nobody showed up, I’m here without representation.”

After the meeting, the employee was separated. The employee would later claim that he told the employer’s representative that he wanted the union at the meeting and, moreover, the representative told him he did not need anyone present because the matter was not a disciplinary action. The employer’s representative denied these allegations.

Focusing on the employee’s statement that he attempted to reach the union, the NLRB panel, in a 2-1 decision concluded that this statement was, in fact, a request for representation. Alluding to the fact that no magic words were needed to invoke Weingarten rights, the majority decided that the employee’s statement about his unsuccessful attempt to reach a representative—standing alone—was sufficient to invoke Weingarten rights. The NLRB affirmed the administrative law judge’s order of reinstatement and backpay.

Although Circus Circus Casinos has since appealed this decision, employers will still be well-served to tread carefully when conducting employee investigations in the interim—lest they wake the lion. As such, employers may want to consider any statement by a union employee referencing their union, their steward, a witness, or a representative as invoking Weingarten rights. A failure to do so may put an employer at risk of taking a nasty bite in the form of reinstatement or back pay.

Attorney John Getty* assisted in preparing this blog post.
*Admitted in Louisiana and Georgia