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NLRB Adopts a New, Employer-Friendly Standard for Unilateral Changes to Job Terms and Asks for Input on Its Standard Protecting Profane Speech

By David Keating and Kristofor Hanson - Lindner & Marsack, S.C.

September 11, 2019

Over the course of the past year, the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) has indicated its willingness to develop more employer-friendly standards that allow employers more flexibility in managing their businesses and their unionized workforces. Just in the past week, the Board continued its efforts with a ruling allowing for greater ease in implementing unilateral changes to job terms and by seeking input on a troubling standard that had protected outrageous speech by employees.

In M.V. Transportation, 28-CA-173726, decided September 10, 2019, the Board overturned a longstanding, stringent standard that limited an employer’s right to make unilateral changes to job terms such as work rules and attendance policies. In doing so, it adopted a new “contract coverage” test that allows employers more flexibility in making such changes.

The “contract coverage” standard allows an employer to make unilateral changes to employees’ terms and conditions of employment if the labor contract “contains a provision that broadly grants the employer the right to implement new rules and policies and to revise existing ones.” An employer would thus have the right to enact changes such as implementing new attendance and safety rules or revise disciplinary or off-duty access policies, according to the Board.

Under the previous “clear and unmistakable waiver” standard, for an employer to make unilateral changes to work rules, attendance policies, or the like, it had to demonstrate that the contract specifically and unequivocally waived the union’s statutory right to bargain over that particular issue. In overturning this standard, the Board followed the lead of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had stated that the “clear and unmistakable waiver” standard was “in practice, impossible to meet.”

According to the Board, the new “contract coverage” test will allow every part of a collective bargaining agreement to be given its bargained-for effect, including those that give an employer the right to act without bargaining first.

Board Will Reconsider Its Loss-of-Protection Standards for Profane and Offensive Outbursts of a Racial and Sexual Nature

In another notable Board development, on September 5, 2019, the Board requested briefing on whether it should reconsider its standards for profane outbursts and offensive statements of a racial or sexual nature. The Board issued a notice and invitation to file briefs in General Motors LLC, 14-CA-197985 and 14-CA-208242, seeking public input on whether to adhere to, modify, or overrule the standard applied in previous cases in which extremely profane or racially offensive language has been deemed protected by the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).

Specifically, the notice seeks comments relating to the following cases: Plaza Auto Center, 360 NLRB 972 (2014), Pier Sixty, LLC, 362 NLRB 505 (2015), and Cooper Tire, 363 NLRB No. 194 (2016). These cases, discussed in General Motors, resulted in considerable protection for outrageously offensive statements. The Board’s treatment of such sexually and racially offensive statements has been criticized as both morally unacceptable and inconsistent with other workplace laws by federal judges as well as within the Board itself.

About the invitation for briefing, Chairman John F. Ring stated: “The Board’s request for briefing on this important topic reflects its long-standing practice of seeking input from interested parties when the Board believes it can benefit from such briefing. We look forward to considering the views of all interested parties.”

Amicus briefs not to exceed 25 pages in length may be filed with the Board in Washington, D.C. on or before November 4, 2019.

Lindner & Marsack, S.C. represents employers in all areas of labor and employment law. If you have any questions about the notice and invitation to file briefs or any other labor or employment issue involving your business, please contact us at any time.

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