This is “Labor and Management Rights under the Federal Labor Laws”, section 24.3 from the book The Legal Environment and Business Law: Executive MBA Edition (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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As long as a union has a valid contract with the employer, no rival union may seek an election to oust it except within sixty to ninety days before the contract expires. Nor may an election be held if an election has already been held in the bargaining unit during the preceding twelve months.
Whom does the union represent? In companies of even moderate size, employees work at different tasks and have different interests. Must the secretaries, punch press operators, drivers, and clerical help all belong to the same union in a small factory? The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has the authority to determine which group of employees will constitute the appropriate bargaining unit. To make its determination, the board must look at the history of collective bargaining among similar workers in the industry; the employees’ duties, wages, skills, and working conditions; the relationship between the proposed unit and the structure of the employer’s organization; and the desires of the employees themselves.
Two groups must be excluded from any bargaining unit—supervisory employees and independent contractors. Determining whether or not a particular employee is a supervisor is left to the discretion of the board.
To conduct an organizing drive, a union must be able to communicate with the employees. But the employer has valid interests in seeing that employees and organizers do not interfere with company operations. Several different problems arise from the need to balance these interests.
One problem is the protection of the employer’s property rights. May nonemployee union organizers come onto the employer’s property to distribute union literature—for example, by standing in the company’s parking lots to hand out leaflets when employees go to and from work? May organizers, whether employees or not, picket or hand out literature in private shopping centers in order to reach the public—for example, to protest a company’s policies toward its nonunion employees? The interests of both employees and employers under the NLRB are twofold: (1) the right of the employees (a) to communicate with each other or the public and (b) to hear what union organizers have to say, and (2) the employers’ (a) property rights and (b) their interest in managing the business efficiently and profitably.
The rules that govern in these situations are complex, but in general they appear to provide these answers: (1) If the persons doing the soliciting are not employees, the employer may bar them from entering its private property, even if they are attempting to reach employees—assuming that the employer does not discriminate and applies a rule against use of its property equally to everyone.NLRB v. Babcock Wilcox Co., 351 U.S. 105 (1956). (2) If the solicitors are not employees and they are trying to reach the public, they have no right to enter the employer’s private property. (3) If the solicitors are employees who are seeking to reach the public, they have the right to distribute on the employer’s property—in a common case, in a shopping center—unless they have a convenient way to reach their audience on public property off the employer’s premises.Hudgens v. NLRB, 424 U.S. 507 (1976). (4) If the solicitors are employees seeking to reach employees, the employer is permitted to limit the distribution of literature or other solicitations to avoid litter or the interruption of work, but it cannot prohibit solicitation on company property altogether.
In the leading case of Republic Aviation Corp. v. NLRB, the employer, a nonunion plant, had a standing rule against any kind of solicitation on the premises.Republic Aviation Corp. v. NLRB, 324 U.S. 793 (1945). Thereafter, certain employees attempted to organize the plant. The employer fired one employee for soliciting on behalf of the union and three others for wearing union buttons. The Supreme Court upheld the board’s determination that the discharges constituted an unfair labor practice under Section 8(a) of the NLRA. It does not matter, the Court said, whether the employees had other means of communicating with each other or that the employer’s rule against solicitation may have no effect on the union’s attempt to organize the workers. In other words, the employer’s intent or motive is irrelevant. The only question is whether the employer’s actions might tend to interfere with the employees’ exercise of their rights under the NLRB.
A union election drive is not like a polite conversation over coffee; it is, like political campaigns, full of charges and countercharges. Employers who do not want their employees unionized may warn darkly of the effect of the union on profitability; organizers may exaggerate the company’s financial position. In a 1982 NLRB case, NLRB v. Midland National Life Ins. Co., the board said it would not set aside an election if the parties misrepresented the issues or facts but that it would do so if the statements were made in a deceptive manner—for example, through forged documents.Midland National Life Ins. Co., 263 N.L.R.B. 130 (1982). The board also watches for threats and promises of rewards; for example, the employer might threaten to close the plant if the union succeeds. In NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., the employer stated his worries throughout the campaign that a union would prompt a strike and force the plant to close.NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575 (1969). The board ruled that the employer’s statements were an impermissible threat. To the employer’s claim that he was simply exercising his First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court held that although employers do enjoy freedom of speech, it is an unfair labor practice to threaten consequences that are not rooted in economic realities.
A union campaign has become an intricate legal duel, heavily dependent on strategic considerations of law and public relations. Neither management nor labor can afford to wage a union campaign without specialized advisers who can guide the thrust and parry of the antagonists. Labor usually has such advisers because very few organizational drives are begun without outside organizers who have access to union lawyers. A business person who attempts to fight a union, like a labor organizer or an employee who attempts to organize one, takes a sizeable risk when acting alone, without competent advice. For example, an employer’s simple statement like “We will get the heating fixed” in response to a seemingly innocent question about the “drafty old building” at a meeting with employees can lead to an NLRB decision to set aside an election if the union loses, because the answer can easily be construed as a promise, and under Section 8(c) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a promise of reward or benefit during an organization campaign is an unfair labor practice by management. Few union election campaigns occur without questions, meetings, and pamphleteering carefully worked out in advance.
The results of all the electioneering are worth noting. In the 1980s, some 20 percent of the total US workforce was unionized. As of 2009, the union membership rate was 12.3 percent, and more union members were public employees than private sector employees. Fairly or unfairly, public employee unions were under attack as of 2010, as their wages generally exceeded the average wages of other categories of workers.
Once selected as the bargaining representative for an appropriate group of employees, the union has the exclusive right to bargainAfter a union election, the union will be, by law, the exclusive bargaining agent for a group of employees.. Thereafter, individual employees may not enter into separate contracts with the employer, even if they voted against the particular union or against having a union at all. The principle of exclusivity is fundamental to the collective bargaining process. Just how basic it is can be seen in Emporium Capwell Co. v. Western Addition Community Organization (Section 24.4.1 "Exclusivity"), in which one group of employees protested what they thought were racially discriminatory work assignments, barred under the collective bargaining agreementThe contract between the union and the employer. (the contract between the union and the employer). Certain of the employees filed grievances with the union, which looked into the problem more slowly than the employees thought necessary. They urged that the union permit them to picket, but the union refused. They picketed anyway, calling for a consumer boycott. The employer warned them to desist, but they continued and were fired. The question was whether they were discharged for engaging in concerted activity protected under Section 7 of the NLRA.
The NLRA holds both employer and union to a duty to “bargain in good faith.” What these words mean has long been the subject of controversy. Suppose Mr. Mardian, a company’s chief negotiator, announces to Mr. Ulasewicz, the company’s chief union negotiator, “I will sit down and talk with you, but be damned if I will agree to a penny more an hour than the people are getting now.” That is not a refusal to bargain: it is a statement of the company’s position, and only Mardian’s actual conduct during the negotiations will determine whether he was bargaining in good faith. Of course, if he refused to talk to Ulasewicz, he would have been guilty of a failure to bargain in good faith.
Suppose Mardian has steadily insisted during the bargaining sessions that the company must have complete control over every aspect of the labor relationship, including the right to hire and fire exactly as it saw fit, the right to raise or lower wages whenever it wanted, and the right to determine which employee was to do which job. The Supreme Court has said that an employer is not obligated to accept any particular term in a proposed collective bargaining agreement and that the NLRB may not second-guess any agreement eventually reached.NLRB v. American National Insurance Co., 343 U.S. 395 (1962). However, the employer must actually engage in bargaining, and a stubborn insistence on leaving everything entirely to the discretion of management has been construed as a failure to bargain.NLRB v. Reed St Prince Manufacturing Co., 205 F.2d 131 (1st Cir. 1953).
Suppose Mardian had responded to Ulasewicz’s request for a ten-cent-an-hour raise: “If we do that, we’ll go broke.” Suppose further that Ulasewicz then demanded, on behalf of the union, that Mardian prove his contention but that Mardian refused. Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court has ruled, the NLRB is entitled to hold that management has failed to bargain in good faith, for once having raised the issue, the employer must in good faith demonstrate veracity.NLRB v. Truitt Manufacturer Co., 351 U.S. 149 (1956).
The NLRB requires employers and unions to bargain over “terms and condition of employment.” Wages, hours, and working conditions—whether workers must wear uniforms, when the lunch hour begins, the type of safety equipment on hand—are well-understood terms and conditions of employment. But the statutory phrase is vague, and the cases abound with debates over whether a term insisted on by union or management is within the statutory phrase. No simple rule can be stated for determining whether a desire of union or management is mandatory or nonmandatory. The cases do suggest that management retains the right to determine the scope and direction of the enterprise, so that, for example, the decision to invest in labor-saving machinery is a nonmandatory subject—meaning that a union could not insist that an employer bargain over it, although the employer may negotiate if it desires. Once a subject is incorporated in a collective bargaining agreement, neither side may demand that it be renegotiated during the term of the agreement.
A mere refusal to agree, without more, is not evidence of bad-faith bargaining. That may seem a difficult conclusion to reach in view of what has just been said. Nevertheless, the law is clear that a company may refuse to accede to a union’s demand for any reason other than an unwillingness to consider the matter in the first place. If a union negotiator cannot talk management into accepting his demand, then the union may take other actions—including strikes to try to force management to bow. It follows from this conclusion that the NLRB has no power to compel agreement—even if management is guilty of negotiating in bad faith. The federal labor laws are premised on the fundamental principle that the parties are free to bargain.
The employer may not issue a rule flatly prohibiting solicitation or distribution of literature during “working time” or “working hours”—a valid rule against solicitation or distribution must permit these activities during employees’ free time, such as on breaks and at meals. A rule that barred solicitation on the plant floor during actual work would be presumptively valid. However, the NLRB has the power to enjoin its enforcement if the employer used the rule to stop union soliciting but permitted employees during the forbidden times to solicit for charitable and other causes.
A business may lawfully decide to move a factory for economic reasons, but it may not do so to discourage a union or break it apart. The removal of a plant from one location to another is known as a runaway shop. An employer’s representative who conceals from union representatives that a move is contemplated commits an unfair labor practice because the union is deprived of the opportunity to negotiate over an important part of its members’ working conditions. If a company moves a plant and it is later determined that the move was to interfere with union activity, the board may order the employer to offer affected workers employment at the new site and the cost of transportation.
Since “interference” is not a precise term but descriptive of a purpose embodied in the law, many activities lie within its scope. These include hiring professional strikebreakers to disrupt a strike, showing favoritism toward a particular union to discourage another one, awarding or withholding benefits to encourage or discourage unionization, engaging in misrepresentations and other acts during election campaigns, spying on workers, making employment contracts with individual members of a union, blacklisting workers, attacking union activists physically or verbally, and disseminating various forms of antiunion propaganda.
Under Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, an employer may not discriminate against employees in hiring or tenure to encourage or discourage membership in a labor organization. Thus an employer may not refuse to hire a union activist and may not fire an employee who is actively supporting the union or an organizational effort if the employee is otherwise performing adequately on the job. Nor may an employer discriminate among employees seeking reinstatement after a strike or discriminatory layoff or lockoutA management tactic designed to gain bargaining advantage for the company by refusing to allow union members to work (and thus depriving them of their pay). (a closing of the job site to prevent employees from coming to work), hiring only those who were less vocal in their support of the union.
The provision against employer discrimination in hiring prohibits certain types of compulsory unionism. Four basic types of compulsory unionismEmployers must not discriminate where there is a closed shop, a union shop, maintenance-of-membership agreements, or preferential hiring agreements. are possible: the closed shop, the union shop, maintenance-of-membership agreements, and preferential hiring agreements. In addition, a fifth arrangement—the agency shop—while not strictly compulsory unionism, has characteristics similar to it. Section 8(a)(3) prohibits the closed shop and preferential hiring. But Section 14 permits states to enact more stringent standards and thus to outlaw the union shop, the agency shop, and maintenance of membership as well.
Section 13 of the NLRA says that “nothing in this Act, except as specifically provided for herein, shall be construed so as either to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike, or to affect the limitations or qualifications on that right.” The labor statutes distinguish between two types of strikes: the economic strikeEmployees go on strike to force an employer to give in to workers’ demands. and the strike over an unfair labor practice. In the former, employees go on strike to try to force the employer to give in to the workers’ demands. In the latter, the strikers are protesting the employer’s committing an unfair labor practice. The importance of the distinction lies in whether the employees are entitled to regain their jobs after the strike is over. In either type of strike, an employer may hire substitute employees during the strike. When it concludes, however, a difference arises. In NLRB v. International Van Lines, the Supreme Court said that an employer may hire permanent employees to take over during an economic strike and need not discharge the substitute employees when it is done.NLRB v. International Van Lines, 409 U.S. 48 (1972). That is not true for a strike over an unfair labor practice: an employee who makes an unconditional offer to return to his job is entitled to it, even though in the meantime the employer may have replaced him.
These rules do not apply to unlawful strikes. Not every walkout by workers is permissible. Their collective bargaining agreement may contain a no-strike clause barring strikes during the life of the contract. Most public employees—that is, those who work for the government—are prohibited from striking. Sit-down strikes, in which the employees stay on the work site, precluding the employer from using the facility, are unlawful. So are wildcat strikes, when a faction within the union walks out without authorization. Also unlawful are violent strikes, jurisdictional strikes, secondary strikes and boycotts, and strikes intended to force the employer to sign “hot cargo” agreements (see Section 24.3.6 "Hot Cargo Agreement").
To combat strikes, especially when many employers are involved with a single union trying to bargain for better conditions throughout an industry, an employer may resort to a lockout. Typically, the union will call a whipsaw strike, striking some of the employers but not all. The whipsaw strike puts pressure on the struck employers because their competitors are still in business. The employers who are not struck may lawfully respond by locking out all employees who belong to the multiemployer union. This is known as a defensive lockout. In several cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that an offensive lockout, which occurs when the employer, anticipating a strike, locks the employees out, is also permissible.
Section 8(b)(4), added to the NLRA by the Taft-Hartley Act, prohibits workers from engaging in secondary boycottsUnion picketing directed at one business, designed to induce that business to stop doing business with the union’s employer.—strikes, refusals to handle goods, threats, coercion, restraints, and other actions aimed at forcing any person to refrain from performing services for or handling products of any producer other than the employer, or to stop doing business with any other person. Like the Robinson-Patman Act (Chapter 21 "Antitrust Law"), this section of the NLRA is extremely difficult to parse and has led to many convoluted interpretations. However, its essence is to prevent workers from picketing employers not involved in the primary labor dispute.
Suppose that the Amalgamated Widget Workers of America puts up a picket line around the Ace Widget Company to force the company to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining agent for Ace’s employees. The employees themselves do not join in the picketing, but when a delivery truck shows up at the plant gates and discovers the pickets, it turns back because the driver’s policy is never to cross a picket line. This activity falls within the literal terms of Section (8)(b)(4): it seeks to prevent the employees of Ace’s suppliers from doing business with Ace. But in NLRB v. International Rice Milling Co., the Supreme Court declared that this sort of primary activity—aimed directly at the employer involved in the primary dispute—is not unlawful.NLRB v. International Rice Milling Co., 341 U.S. 665 (1951). So it is permissible to throw up a picket line to attempt to stop anyone from doing business with the employer—whether suppliers, customers, or even the employer’s other employees (e.g., those belonging to other unions). That is why a single striking union is so often successful in closing down an entire plant: when the striking union goes out, the other unions “honor the picket line” by refusing to cross it and thus stay out of work as well. The employer might have been able to replace the striking workers if they were only a small part of the plant’s labor force, but it becomes nearly impossible to replace all the workers within a dozen or more unions.
Suppose the United Sanders Union strikes the Ace Widget Company. Nonunion sanders refuse to cross the picket line. So Ace sends out its unsanded widgets to Acme Sanders, a job shop across town, to do the sanding job. When the strikers learn what Ace has done, they begin to picket Acme, at which point Acme’s sanders honor the picket line and refuse to enter the premises. Acme goes to court to enjoin the pickets—an exception to the Norris–La Guardia Act permits the federal courts to enjoin picketing in cases of unlawful secondary boycotts. Should the court grant the injunction? It might seem so, but under the so-called ally doctrine, the court will not. Since Acme is joined with Ace to help it finish the work, the courts deem the second employer an ally (or extension) of the first. The second picket line, therefore, is not secondary.
Suppose that despite the strike, Ace manages to ship its finished product to the Dime Store, which sells a variety of goods, including widgets. The union puts up a picket around the store; the picketers bear signs that urge shoppers to refrain from buying any Ace widgets at the Dime Store. Is this an unlawful secondary boycott? Again, the answer is no. A proviso to Section 8(b)(4) permits publicity aimed at truthfully advising the public that products of a primary employer with whom the union is on strike are being distributed by a secondary employer.
Now suppose that the picketers carried signs and orally urged shoppers not to enter the Dime Store at all until it stopped carrying Ace’s widgets. That would be unlawful: a union may not picket a secondary site to persuade consumers to refrain from purchasing any of the secondary employer’s products. Likewise, the union may not picket in order to cause the secondary employees (the salesclerks at the Dime Store) to refuse to go to work at the secondary employer. The latter is a classic example of inducing a secondary work stoppage, and it is barred by Section 8(b)(4). However, in DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, the Supreme Court opened what may prove to be a significant loophole in the prohibition against secondary boycotts.DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, 485 U.S. 568 (1988). Instead of picketing, the union distributed handbills at the entrance to a shopping mall, asking customers not to patronize any stores in the mall until the mall owner, in building new stores, promised to deal only with contractors paying “fair wages.” The Court approved the handbilling, calling it “only an attempt to persuade customers not to shop in the mall,” distinguishing it from picketing, which the Court said would constitute a secondary boycott.
A union might find it advantageous to include in a collective bargaining agreement a provision under which the employer agrees to refrain from dealing with certain people or from purchasing their products. For example, suppose the Teamsters Union negotiates a contract with its employers that permits truckers to refuse to carry goods to an employer being struck by the Teamsters or any other union. The struck employer is the primary employer; the employer who has agreed to the clause—known as a hot cargo clause—is the secondary employer. The Supreme Court upheld these clauses in United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Local 1976 v. NLRB, but the following year, Congress outlawed them in Section 8(e), with a partial exemption for the construction industry and a full exemption for garment and apparel workers.United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Local 1976 v. NLRB, 357 U.S. 93 (1958).
A union certified as the exclusive bargaining representative in the appropriate bargaining unit is obligated to represent employees within that unit, even those who are not members of the union. Various provisions of the labor statutes prohibit unions from entering into agreements with employers to discriminate against nonmembers. The laws also prohibit unions from treating employees unfairly on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.
Ace Widget, a peaceful employer, has a distinguished labor history. It did not resist the first union, which came calling in 1936, just after the NLRA was enacted; by 1987, it had twenty-three different unions representing 7,200 workers at forty-eight sites throughout the United States. Then, because of increasingly more powerful and efficient machinery, United Widget Workers realized that it was losing jobs throughout the industry. It decided to attempt to bring within its purview jobs currently performed by members of other unions. United Widget Workers asked Ace to assign all sanding work to its members. Since sanding work was already being done by members of the United Sanders, Ace management refused. United Widget Workers decided to go on strike over the issue. Is the strike lawful? Under Section 8(b)(4)(D), regulating jurisdictional disputes, it is not. It is an unfair labor practice for a union to strike or engage in other concerted actions to pressure an employer to assign or reassign work to one union rather than another.
An employer is bound by a collective bargaining agreement to pay the wages of unionized workers specified in the agreement. But obviously, no paper agreement can guarantee wages when an insolvent company goes out of business. Suppose a company files for reorganization under the bankruptcy laws. May it then ignore its contractual obligation to pay wages previously bargained for? In the early 1980s, several major companies—for example, Continental Airlines and Oklahoma-based Wilson Foods Corporation—sought the protection of federal bankruptcy law in part to cut union wages. Alarmed, Congress, in 1984, amended the bankruptcy code to require companies to attempt to negotiate a modification of their contracts in good faith. In Bankruptcy Code Section 1113, Congress set forth several requirements for a debtor to extinguish its obligations under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Among other requirements, the debtor must make a proposal to the union modifying the CBA based on accurate and complete information, and meet with union leaders and confer in good faith after making the proposal and before the bankruptcy judge would rule.
If negotiations fail, a bankruptcy judge may approve the modification if it is necessary to allow the debtor to reorganize, and if all creditors, the debtor, and affected parties are treated fairly and equitably. If the union rejects the proposal without good cause, and the debtor has met its obligations of fairness and consultation from section 1113, the bankruptcy judge can accept the proposed modification to the CBA. In 1986, the US court of appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation could not modify its contract with the United Steelworkers simply because it was financially distressed. The court pointed to the company’s failure to provide a “snap-back” clause in its new agreement. Such a clause would restore wages to the higher levels of the original contract if the company made a comeback faster than anticipated.Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. v. United Steelworkers of America, 791 F.2d 1071 (3d Cir. 1986). But in the 2006 case involving Northwest Airlines Chapter 11 reorganization,In re Northwest Airlines Corp., 2006 Bankr. LEXIS 1159 (So. District N.Y.). the court found that Northwest had to reduce labor costs if it were going to successfully reorganize, that it had made an equitable proposal and consulted in good faith with the union, but that the union had rejected the proposed modification without good cause. Section 1113 was satisfied, and Northwest was allowed to modify its CBA with the union.
The NLRB determines the appropriate bargaining unit and also supervises union organizing drives. It must balance protecting the employer’s rights, including property rights and the right to manage the business efficiently, with the right of employees to communicate with each other. The NLRB will select a union and give it the exclusive right to bargain, and the result will usually be a collective bargaining unit. The employer should not interfere with the unionizing process or interfere once the union is in place. The union has the right to strike, subject to certain very important restrictions.