Friday, August 9, 2019
This morning, the NLRB released a notice or proposed rulemaking affecting union elections. (Thanks to Robert Iafolla at Bloomberg Law for sending them my way and providing a good description of them.) At the outset, I'll note that these proposals, while important, aren't as central as the rules that govern how the more typical union elections are run and challenged. On to the proposals . . . .
1. Blocking Charge Policy. You can read more about this policy in my article discussing the current elections rules. The short version is that the NLRB has long had a policy refusing to hold an election until any alleged, non-trivial unfair labor practice charges have been dealt with. The rationale is that unresolved ULPs can interfere with a free and fair election (for instance, imagine if the employer was firing union supporters--that would improperly influence an election). The blocking charge policy has the most traction in union decertification elections because unions have effectively used this policy to delay those elections (sort of the flip side of employers dragging out initial union certification elections). As the Board majority noted in its proposed rules today, I'm sympathetic to the concern about union abuse of blocking charges and have been open to amending that policy as part of broader, substantive election reforms, but I'm not a fan of where the Board seems to be going.
The Board has announced that it proposes to adopt the General Counsel's "vote-and-impound" procedure, in which the Board would still hold the election, impound the ballots, and wait until after the ULP charges have been resolved to determine whether to open them. If the Board was quick to throw out ballots and rerun the election if it found merit to ULP charges, this rule might be OK, but I don't see that happening (and the proposal does say that if the Regional Director finds no merit to the ULP allegations, the ballots will be counted immediately). Instead, what I envision happening is the Board will be willing to use impounded ballots even in the presence of ULPs or other behavior that likely affected the election. For instance, if it finds a ULP and remedies it, will the Board rerun the election? If not, then the original ballots will remain tainted. The notice of proposed rule making obviously doesn't get into the details, but until I see something otherwise, color me skeptical. I would prefer instead new rules that made it somewhat harder to use a blocking charge to delay an election and/or capping the amount of time that a stay would remain in effect.
2. Voluntary Recognition Bar. Again, we don't know for sure what the Board will end up doing, but this sounds like deja vu all over again. As a reminder, the voluntary recognition bar is the NLRB's policy that mirrors the statutory election bar, which prevents a union election within 12 months after a prior one. The purpose of the bar is both to avoid too many disruptions to the workplace (usually after a union loss) and (if the union won) to give the union some time to work with an often-resistant employer to produce results before facing a potential decertification vote. But, if the employer voluntarily recognizes a union, rather than going through an NLRB-run election, then things are more malleable. Traditionally, the Board barred an election for a "reasonable period" after voluntary recognition (usually about 6 months). The Bush Board reversed that in Dana Corp., by allowing a decert petition immediately after voluntary recognition, for up to 45 days; the Obama Board then shifted back to the original rule in Lamon Gasket.
In the proposed rulemaking, the Board states it intends to reinstate the Dana Corp. rule. More troubling, the Board also makes a point to note that some commentators believe they should eliminate the bar in its entirety, which is disturbing. As the Board is well aware, unions have increasingly sought voluntary recognition because of their belief that the NLRB election process remains stacked against them. Eliminating the voluntary recognition bar will make that avenue less appealing . . . although probably still better than the NLRB process for unions that want to avoid it. So, while I'm not fan of Dana Corp., it's much better than eliminating discretionary election bars altogether.
3. Construction Pre-Hire Agreements. Section 8(f) of the NLRA provides a unique avenue for union recognition in the construction industry. Because that industry often involves numerous, short-term projects, the typical union recognition process doesn't fit well. In short, Section 8(f) allows an employer and union to enter into a "pre-hire" agreement that involves recognizing the union, even if there isn't a showing of majority union support (this is why you often see certain construction employers considered either "union contractors" or "non-union contractors"). Those agreements, however, can not permit any election bars. The Board has fluctuated over the years on how a union can convert an 8(f) recognition status to a more traditional Section 9(a) one, with the accompanying election bars. Currently, Board policy allows, under certain conditions (including the union's claim that it has evidence of majority support), for a union contract to provide 9(a) status. The D.C. Circuit has rejected this policy, and the Board is indicating that it is going to follow suit--requiring an actual showing of majority support.
Member McFerran has a length dissent, which is worth a read and explains some of the criticisms I've raised in more detail. And, to reiterate my self-plug, check out my article on NLRB elections, NLRB Elections: Ambush or Anticlimax?, for more explanation of some of these topics and as a preview of what might be another set of election rule proposals.