NLRB Quickstepping in Right Direction for Workers

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Labor Organizing

email*304xx2122-1415-0-0New Orleans    How much it will help is going to be an ongoing debate, but there have been a number of recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that all seem to be in the right direction, so it’s worth keeping score.

The NLRB has now ruled in a significant case that workers have the right to use company emails for concerted activity, unless there are exceptional reasons to the contrary. In terms of mass communications between each other and with unions, this is significant, since email addresses are more likely to be accurate as the lingua franca of communications than the ever shifting terrain of home addresses. For organizers, company systems that are organized rationally with standard addresses might also prove useful. Certainly we found this to be the case in organizing San Antonio city workers and sharing e-bulletins during organizing drives.

The NLRB has also finalized its rule making procedure on speeding up elections and more quickly resolving any employer challenges. This rule doesn’t take effect until April 2015, but will actually make a difference for unions seriously involved in organizing. Academic studies have long established that the winning percentage of unions drastically improves even when elections are held in less than 30 days. The possibility that elections could be held in half of that time finally gives the advantage more clearly to the “runner” trying to win union recognition than to the employer hunkering down behind lawyers and legal delays. Much of the change here will be tactical, and whether unions that have more recently eschewed elections and the NLRB will find this change enticing enough to lead to a change in strategy will be an interesting question in the coming year.

Another ruling has opened up higher education and overturned the old Yeshiva decision several decades ago creating managerial exemptions for tenured professors particularly and religious institutions of higher learning especially. Universities will now have to prove there is religious content in their teaching that crosses the line between church and state. On the managerial question, given the explosion in the number of adjunct teachers and professors, the NLRB ruled squarely that these days the old rule simply doesn’t apply because the nature of the teaching job has changed radically. True that! There has been more organizing movement in higher ed, so this could be a breakthrough.

Finally, the joint employer ruling that has ensnared McDonald’s and caused trepidation among franchise-based business was finalized when complaints were issued for a host of workers involved in job actions with the company. Does this give the workers an edge on higher wages or union protection? Not so much, but it does change the game and extract a price, which Mickey D’s and many others will be paying for quite a while, if this ruling stands.

None of this will stop the decline of unions, but making the NLRB relevant again has value in protecting workers, and the best of union organizers will take these small openings in the door and figure out a way to drive trucks full of unorganized workers through them. Coupled with more security for undocumented workers next year, and we might see union membership move the needle in the right direction for a change.