Tag Archives: union

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

Jimmy John’s Takes on Disloyal Employees and the NLRB and Wins

Doling out a refreshing victory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sided with Jimmy John’s in a protected, concerted activity case brought under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). On July 3, the full en banc court reversed an earlier decision of a three-member panel of the court that had affirmed a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruling for the employees. Unless appealed to the Supreme Court, this decision brings to an end a torturous legal saga lasting over six years.

This case was set in motion in October 2010 when an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-affiliated union lost a union election to represent Jimmy John’s employees at ten franchised stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, owned and operated by MikLin Enterprises. After the unsuccessful election, several union supporters continued to pressure the franchisee’s management to adopt workplace policy changes, including the adoption of paid sick leave. The disgruntled sandwich-makers claimed that current attendance policies forced them to work while sick.

The dispute escalated when six of these employees placed posters in and around the restaurants, calling attention to their claims. The posters featured two identical side-by-side pictures of a Jimmy John’s sandwich. One was labeled as being made by a “sick” employee and the other by a “healthy” employee. The caption below the picture read “Can’t tell the difference?” and was accompanied by a message criticizing the employer’s attendance policies. The employer terminated the six employees responsible for these posters.

The employees challenged their terminations claiming that the employer’s actions were in retaliation for concerted protected activity under the NLRA. Both the NLRB and the three-member panel of the Eighth Circuit agreed. However, the full panel of the Eighth Circuit ruled that the terminations were lawful. Specifically, it found that the claims about food safety were false and misleading and therefore, sufficiently “disloyal” to place the actions of the six employees outside of the protections of the NLRA.

The decision is heartening for employers, as many recent NLRB decisions have been overly protective of worker actions that were calculated to harm a company’s reputation.

John M. Hament
jhament@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2555

Offensive Facebook Posts May Be Protected Speech

Human resources experts often recommend a detailed analysis before disciplining an employee for offensive statements. On April 21, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted this requirement and forced an employer to reinstate an employee who had been fired for posting highly offensive comments about his supervisor. Although this case, National Labor Relations Board v. Pier Sixty LLC, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6974 (2d Cir. April 21, 2017), involved a union organizing campaign, such a dispute can arise outside the union context. It can arise in a breakroom conversation, a media interview, a picket sign, or a social media post. If the content involves protected speech, such as criticism of the terms and conditions of the employee’s employment, and especially if the speech purports to speak on behalf of or for the benefit of others, the speech may be protected, whether or not there is a union involved.

In Pier Sixty, the employee posted on Facebook that his supervisor is a “NASTY MOTHER F—ER” and “F—his mother and his entire f—ing family!!!”  The post criticized his supervisor’s communications style, saying, “…don’t know how to talk to people!!!!”  The post also included a pro-union statement, “Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!”

The court weighed the protections (here, concerted activity) versus how abusive or “opprobrious” the comments were. The court reviewed the context of the statements, including that the employer was found to have permitted past vulgarity and to have engaged in other efforts to impede unionizing efforts. Commenting that these posts fall on the “outer bounds” of protected activity, the court declared the posts to be within the bounds of protected concerted activity and required the employer to bring the discharged employee back to work.

Employers should ensure that workplace rules are consistently enforced and that the reason for discharge does not involve and does not appear to involve a protected reason. Employers should be prepared to articulate and, if required, prove the lawful reason for discharge rather than relying on at-will status.

Kimberly Page Walker
kwalker@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6628