NLRB Broadens Employers' Ability To Ban Union Communications Using Corporate E-Mail

In a highly anticipated decision, the National Labor Relations Board has emphatically landed on the side of employers whose policies bar employees from using corporate e-mail resources for union activities.

In The Guard Publishing Co. d/b/a The Register Guard, the Board, in a 3-2 decision, held that “employees have no statutory right to use an employer’s equipment or media for Section 7 communications.”  Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act  encompasses communications about virtually all union activities by employees, including solicitation, organizing, grievances, picketing, strikes, and discussions about the terms and conditions of employment.  In light of this ruling, an employer may, in the words of the Board, “lawfully bar employees’ nonwork-related use of its e-mail systems,” including use for union activities.

There is a caveat, but as defined by the Board, the caveat is a narrow one:  Employers can not act “in a manner that discriminates against Section 7 activity.” (emphasis supplied).  Significantly, the Guard Publishing decision substantially narrows the prior definition of “discrimination” for purposes of analyzing whether an e-mail policy (or any other policy restricting Section 7 activities) on its face, or as enforced by the employer, interferes with Section 7 rights.

Under prior precedent, the Board would find “discrimination” where, for example, an employer disciplined an employee for using corporate resources to send union-related e-mail but permitted any other e-mail communications unrelated to work, such as invitations to bridal showers, recruiting for fantasy football leagues, or solicitations for charitable contributions.  Because almost every employer, upon close scrutiny, allows some e-mail unrelated to work — even if the “official” policy prohibits e-mail unrelated to work – this definition of “discrimination” effectively prevented employers from enforcing restrictions on union-related communications using corporate e-mail systems.

The Board overruled this prior precedent, explaining that “unlawful discrimination consists of disparate treatment of activities or communication of a similar character because of their union or other Section 7-protected status.”  The Board provided several examples to illustrate this much narrower definition of “discrimination”:  “an employer clearly would violate the [NLRA] if it permitted employees to use e-mail to solicit for one union but not another, or if it permitted solicitation by antiunion employees but not by prounion employees.”  By contract, the Board explained, any of the following policies would be permissible (i.e., non-discriminatory), even if the policy incidentally interfered with union communications:

Ø      A policy permitting only business-related communications

Ø      A policy barring all solicitations

Ø      A policy permitting only charitable solicitations

Ø      A policy permitting solicitations only of a personal nature

The one remaining catch is that an employer’s motivation for line-drawing can not be anti-union animus.  In other words, an employer can not promulgate a policy that permits only charitable solicitations as a subterfuge for suppressing union-related communications over the corporate e-mail system.

What does Guard Publishing mean, in practical terms, for employers?

First, existing corporate e-mail policies most likely do not need to be revised (except in the unlikely event that the policy expressly prohibits union-related communications while permitting communications related to other membership organizations).  Employers should review their existing polices to ensure that they comply with the Board’s decision in Guard Publishing.

Second, employers who revise their e-mail policy, or prepare one for the first time, can impose broad prohibitions, such as e-mail only for work-related purposes, even if the prohibition incidentally interferes with Section 7 communications.

Third, when promulgating a new or revised e-mail policy, employers should have legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for their line drawing, such as preserving server space, protecting against computer viruses, dissemination of confidential information, preventing losses of productivity, and avoiding company liability for employees’ inappropriate e-mail.

Fourth, before disciplining an employee for using corporate e-mail to communicate about union-related activities, an employer should confirm that the communication, in fact, violated existing policy.  In Guard Publishing, the NLRB found that the employer had violated the NLRA by disciplining an employee who sent an e-mail which did relate to union matters but did not solicit employees to join the union and, therefore, did not violate the newspaper’s policy barring “non-job-related solicitations.”

Fifth, employers can discipline employees for using corporate e-mail to send union-related communications in violation of the employer's e-mail policy as long as employees engaged in similar conduct also are disciplined.  In other words, an employee can be disciplined for soliciting union participation only if employees who solicit participation in other membership organizations also are, or will be, disciplined.  Employers should implement procedures to ensure that they enforce their e-mail policy in a non-discriminatory manner.

The Board’s decision may be appealed. We will continue to comment on developments in this important case.  (For more in-depth analysis of this decision, see Littler ASAP "NLRB Rules That Employers May Implement a Corporate E-mail Policy That Has the Effect of Barring Union-Related Communications" by Philip Gordon and Michael Mankes.)

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.