Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress love to refer to regulations as “job crushing.” When Trump spoke recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference he not only said that companies can’t hire because of regulations, but he also said that “we’re going to put the regulation industry out of work and out of business.” Trump has already taken steps to make it much harder for government agencies to do their jobs. When he came into office, he imposed a hiring freeze, and he issued an executive order decreeing that the cost of all new regulations issued by each department or agency for fiscal year 2017 can’t be greater than zero regardless of the benefits to be gained from the regulations. Now, Trump has proposed a budget that would dramatically slash the budgets of most federal agencies. Government “regulators” do a great deal of important work to help sand some of the harshest edges off of our capitalist economy. I’ll leave it to others to talk about the importance of environmental and food safety regulations, but workers desperately need a vigilant Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect them from injuries and chemical exposure on the job. To take just one example, in the last days of the Obama Administration, OSHA issued citations to a manufacturing company after two workers suffered severe hand injuries within ten days due to the company’s failure to install proper safety guards on its machines. While the consequences of inadequate wage and hour regulation are less dramatic, a recent Tenth Circuit case illustrates why there is such a pressing need for the government to monitor workplaces.
We still have a lot to learn about Alex Acosta, Donald Trump’s new nominee for Labor Secretary, but one case he ruled on during his brief stint at the National Labor Relations Board suggests that, not surprisingly for a Trump appointee, he is likely to favor employers over workers when faced with a close question. In Alexandria Clinic, P.A., a 2003 case, Acosta, joined by two other Republican Board members, overruled a twenty-four year old precedent to uphold the firings of 22 licensed practical nurses who were fired for striking at the health care clinic where they worked.
The National Labor Relations Act provides that unions must give health care institutions at least ten days’ notice before striking, and the notice must state “the date and time” the strike will commence. The Act further provides that an employee loses her status as an employee if she strikes “within” the notice period. In this case, the union provided ten days’ notice of its intent to strike on September 10 at 8 a.m. After the notice went out, the nurses decided that it would be less disruptive for patients if they struck at 11:45 a.m., instead of 8 a.m., and so they decided to begin their strike at 11:45. The employer was well-prepared to weather the strike, as it had temporary nurses standing by to replace the nurses as soon as they went out. There was no finding that any patient was harmed as a result of the strike.
People have been writing the obituary of the labor movement at least since the 1980s. These doomsayers fall into two camps. One the one hand, there are those who are eager to squelch worker power. A typical example is Virginia Foxx, the new Chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who recently grabbed headlines when she asserted that organized labor had “sort of lost its reason for being.” Representative Foxx has never shown any interest in improving the lives of workers, so her comments are like a rabid Yankees’ fan predicting a bad year for the Red Sox. Of course, she’s not just a “fan,” she holds a position of power where she will undoubtedly try to make it harder for workers to bargain collectively.
But, at the moment, I’m more interested in the other critics – the labor partisans who argue that a new model is necessary to reverse labor’s long decline. Academics and outside observers have long tried to garner attention by promoting a shiny new toy that would replace the existing labor law regime. But it is more notable when a successful labor leader like David Rolf makes the same case. Rolf, a savvy strategist, who heads a home care workers’ union in Washington State, was one of the driving forces behind a successful ballot measure that dramatically raised wages and won paid sick leave for thousands of workers in SeaTac, where Seattle’s airport is located. Even though the Fight for Fifteen in Seattle could never have succeeded without support from unions that were the product of collective bargaining, Rolf is now going around the country arguing that collective bargaining is dead and unions need to find something new to replace it. In a post on this blog, Rolf set up a straw man by criticizing the status quo as based on “enterprise bargaining.” Elsewhere, Rolf suggested that we need a new model to promote geographic and/or sectoral bargaining. While it’s true that under current law, multiemployer bargaining is voluntary, unions already have a long history of engaging in geographic and/or sectoral bargaining. In some cases this has happened through formal multiemployer associations, while in other cases it happens informally on a de facto basis, but wherever unions have been successful, whether it is hospital workers in New York, supermarket workers in California, hotel workers in Las Vegas, or office cleaners in two dozen cities, this is what unions do now. And it’s not just in “legacy” industries. In fact, just this month, my union, SEIU Local 32BJ, reached a first contract with eleven employers covering over 7,000 workers at New York City’s three airports. Furthermore, even bargaining with a single employer can make a huge impact if the employer is large enough. For instance, the Teamsters represent over 250,000 workers who are employed by UPS. And if there were a successful campaign to organize Wal-Mart, that would cover over one million workers.
Now that Republicans in Congress are about to get a President who will sign their bills into law, they are eager to overturn even the most modest pro-worker measures that President Obama’s appointees were able to implement. One of the top items on the chopping block is the “joint employer” standard that the NLRB announced in 2015 in its Browning-Ferris Industries decision. What’s unfortunate is that rather than debate the Board’s decision on the merits, Republicans in Congress insist upon misrepresenting the decision and its effects.
Consider a recent column by Representative Bradley Byrne, who sits on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He wrote, “[t]here may be no regulation that threatens to crush small businesses and working people more than a recent ruling from the National Labor Relations Board relating to the definition of a ‘joint employer.’” Byrne asserts that the ruling will make big firms liable for the actions of small firms, and thus they are “unlikely to do business with them anymore.” This is simply wrong. Joint employers are not automatically liable for each other’s actions. Instead, under long-settled Board law, a non-acting joint employer is only liable where it knew or should have known that the other employer acted for unlawful reasons. Apart from being wrong as a matter of law, the claim is absurd as a matter of common sense. It’s like saying no homeowner would ever hire an electrician because there are some circumstances where the homeowner could be liable for actions taken by the electrician. In fact, the Browning-Ferris decision wasn’t about liability, but rather about the right of workers to bargain with actual decision-makers. The workers in Browning-Ferris were employed by a staffing agency, but Browning-Ferris retained the right to dictate who could work at the facility, it set schedules, controlled the speed of the production line, and imposed a maximum wage rate for the agency’s employees. When the workers formed a union, they wanted the right to bring Browning-Ferris to the table, so that they could bargain about these vital issues. Byrne also makes the unsupported claim that 600,000 jobs “could be either lost or not created” because of the Browning-Ferris decision. But, at most, the decision might lead big firms to follow a different business model – if big firms choose to hire workers directly rather than through intermediaries, the workers’ jobs won’t disappear.
The D.C. Circuit once observed that “[i]t is a fact of life in NLRB lore that certain substantive provisions of the NLRA invariably fluctuate with the changing compositions of the Board.” In 2000, the Clinton Board found that teaching and research assistants at private universities are “employees” covered by the NLRA; in 2004, the Bush Board found that they were not, and in 2016, once again, the Obama Board found that they were employees. This has led to speculation that a Trump Board will deny employee status to teaching and research assistants. In acknowledging this possibility, I don’t want to suggest that this result would be reasonable – the majority opinion in the Board’s 2016 Columbia University case offers a compelling statutory analysis in support of its conclusion. By contrast, the dissent’s position largely relies on speculation about the effects of collective bargaining on universities, with a particular emphasis on the potential disruption from the use of economic weapons. Oddly, the dissent fails to acknowledge that many of these weapons – strikes, lockouts, loss of academic credit, loss of prepaid tuition – would be available even if the Board denies employee status to teaching and research assistants. In fact, Congress enacted the NLRA in the hope that encouraging collective bargaining would minimize industrial strife and unrest. But, if a Trump Board nevertheless rules that teaching and research assistants are not “employees,” what will happen at Harvard and Columbia, where teaching and research assistants have already voted on unionization? Assuming they vote in favor of unionization, their unions should be safe for at least an initial contract cycle.
The NLRB does not simply issue fiats setting forth policies. Instead, it decides particular cases. In deciding cases, the Board often sets policies that have much broader implications, but even if a majority of Board Members would like to overturn a particular precedent, they must wait until they have a case that raises the issue. You might think that Harvard or Columbia could raise the issue with the Trump Board simply by refusing to bargain with a victorious union. But, when an employer refuses to bargain with a newly certified union, since the earliest days of the NLRA the Board has adhered to a policy of refusing to allow the employer to raise issues that “were or could have been litigated in the underlying representation hearing.” This is true even where the issue raised by the employer is jurisdictional. For instance, the NLRA definition of “employee” excludes individuals employed as supervisors. But, where employers have argued that a bargaining unit improperly includes supervisors, the Board has refused to address those claims in refusal-to-bargain cases following a union election. This has been true even where the Board Members have suggested that they were sympathetic to the employer’s position on the merits. In Evergreen New Hope Health & Rehabilitation Center, a 2002 case, the employer argued that a newly certified unit improperly included statutory supervisors. Board Members Hurtgen and Bartlett both noted in a footnote that they did not necessarily endorse the decision that had been reached in the representation case, but nevertheless the issue raised by the employer was not “properly litigable” in the refusal-to-bargain case.