Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Among the many NLRB doctrines that have swung in various directions is the one in which an individual employee's actions or words may be concerted activity protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. The Meyers I and Meyers II cases are the foundation for this doctrine, but we've seen many subsequent Board decisions applying the doctrine in different ways depending on the Board members involved. This week's decision in Alstate Maintenance continues that trend, as the full Board (well, the current four members at least) purports to "begin the process of restoring the Meyers standard." Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that, purely from a doctrinal perspective, that statement is an overreach and the decision is a bit of tempest in a teapot.
Under the Meyers standard and related cases, the General Counsel can show that an individual employee is engaging in concerted activity if the employee was attempting to initiate or to prepare for group action, or if the employee was engaging with or on behalf of a group of employees (there are other ways as well, such as enforcing rights under a collective-bargaining agreement). The Board doesn't attempt to alter these underlying rules, but instead goes all in for a stingy interpretation of individual-concerted activity. In essence, the Board distinguished cases where it felt it could do so, and overruled the one case that it believed to be too much of an impediment (WorldMark by Wyndham). In particular, the Board rejected statements in that case that an employee who protests in a group meeting in engaging in concerted activity by attempting to intimate group action and that complaining in a group setting is necessarily concerted activity (the dissent disputes this characterization of WorldMark). Instead, the Board in Alstate reiterated the need to engage in a fact-specific inquiry under Meyers II. The money quote is:
Rather, to be concerted activity, an individual employee’s statement to a supervisor or manager must either bring a truly group complaint regarding a workplace issue to management’s attention, or the totality of the circumstances must support a reasonable inference that in making the statement, the employee was seeking to initiate, induce or prepare for group action. Consistent with Whittaker and Chromalloy Gas Turbine, relevant factors that could tend to support drawing such an inference include that (1) the statement was made in an employee meeting called by the employer to announce a decision affecting wages, hours, or some other term or condition of employment; (2) the decision affects multiple employees attending the meeting; (3) the employee who speaks up in response to the announcement did so to protest or complain about the decision, not merely (as in WorldMark) to ask questions about how the decision has been or will be implemented; (4) the speaker protested or complained about the decision’s effect on the work force generally or some portion of the work force, not solely about its effect on the speaker him- or herself; and (5) the meeting presented the first opportunity employees had to address the decision, so that the speaker had no opportunity to discuss it with other employees beforehand.
 We do not hold that all these factors must be present to support a reasonable inference that an employee is seeking to initiate or induce group action. In keeping with Meyers II, the determination of whether an individual employee has engaged in concerted activity remains a factual one based on the totality of the record evidence. . . .
One thing that's odd about this case is that it involved not only an employee's comment (a skycap who initially stated that a group of skycaps had helped a similar group arriving at the airport previous and didn't receive a tip) but also a partial work stoppage (the employee and others refused to help the new group). Alas, the GC only focused on the comment, although one might wonder why the fact that group action actually occurred did play a bigger role in the Board's analysis. Nevertheless, I don't see Alstate as making any major, substantive changes to the Meyers standard. Rather, it seems to be an example of a restrictive reading of Section 7 that we'd except from a Republican Board, announced in a way to send a message to parties about what it's doing. That said, as Michael Duff emphasized to me, even if the doctrine isn't effected much, this can have real impacts on employees who are protesting conditions at work.