The NLRB gave organized labor a meaningful gift just before the holidays by issuing a final rule adopting new election case procedures that will likely result in more and faster union elections, and probably also result in more employers having unionized workforces. The new rule becomes effective on April 30, 2012.
The New Year: Out With The Old Rules…
During union campaigns, the union and the employer may disagree (vigorously) about the proper size (“scope”) of the proposed bargaining unit. Such disputes can include whether certain employees are “supervisory” employees and thus ineligible to vote, or whether different classifications of employees share enough of a “community of interest” to be included in the same bargaining unit, and covered by the same contract. How those disputes are resolved often determine the outcome of the election. Under the existing (er, now old) election rules, employers had the opportunity to litigate these types of bargaining unit scope issues before the election.
…In With The New
The NLRB’s new rule essentially eliminates the employer’s opportunity to litigate, prior to the election, any disputes over the scope of the bargaining unit proposed by the union. Under the rule, such issues will ordinarily be addressed only after the election takes place. Employers should be aware of how this “vote now, litigate later” rule could impact union elections.
Shorter Election Campaigns: Under the old rules, litigating bargaining unit scope issues usually delayed the election, giving employers additional time to discuss the pros and cons of unions with its workers before the vote. That additional campaign period is now lost, depriving employers of valuable time to counter an organizing campaign that may have started months before the union went to the NLRB seeking an election.
Greater Difficulty in Challenging The Union’s Proposed Unit: Although employers may technically be able to litigate unit scope and voter eligibility issues after the NLRB conducts the election, in those cases where the vote results in a “yes” vote for the union (which under the old rules happened more than 60% of the time), employers will be in the difficult position of having to contest threshold legal issues after the employees have already “won” the right to representation. This procedure tilts the playing field in favor of unions.
Considered in the context of the NLRB’s August 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare, this rule means that the petitioning union will get a quick election in the unit of employees it has chosen to organize. Specialty Healthcare enables unions to organize small or “micro” units of employees (such as single classifications of employees or individual departments). The Board held that for an employer to add excluded employees to the union’s proposed unit, it must demonstrate that the excluded employees share an “overwhelming community of interest” with the employees the union seeks to represent. In a dissenting opinion, NLRB Member Brian Hayes noted that this test makes it “virtually impossible” for the employer to prove the union’s proposed unit is not proper. To make matters worse, now the Employer will ordinarily have to make that argument after the union has already “won.”
Why Now? Election Year Politics, That’s Why.
That the NLRB issued these new rules now probably had less to do with the holiday spirit than with an election of a different sort–the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the related gridlock in the U.S. Congress. Up until last week, the Board had three members (out of a possible five) which, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in New Process Steel, is the minimum required for the NLRB to decide cases and issue regulations. Last week was when President Obama’s controversial recess appointment of Member Craig Becker ended. The NLRB may have wanted to enact the new rules before it was reduced to two members again, as that may be the last opportunity in an election year for the Obama Administration to do something substantial for organized labor, an important constituency. While nominations for the three NLRB Member vacancies are pending, the gridlocked Senate is not expected to act on those nominations any time soon. While the President could make another recess appointment to ensure a functioning, three-member NLRB, that risks (further) alienating Senate Republicans, all 47 of whom recently signed a letter urging the President not to fill NLRB vacancies using recess appointments. The next few weeks, before Congress reconvenes on January 23 from its holiday recess, could be very interesting for NLRB-watchers. Stay tuned…