In a memorandum dated March 31, 2021, the Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, proclaimed that the agency would enforce a key federal labor law more ardently than had his predecessor. The subject of the memo itself is telling: “Effectuation of the National Labor Relations Act Through Vigorous Enforcement of the Mutual Aid or Protection and Inherently Concerted Doctrines”. This action signals an aggressive enforcement policy against private-sector employers, whether currently unionized or not.
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) generally provides that:
Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities. . . .
This provision protects private-sector (e.g., non-governmental) employees whether they belong to a union or not. In addition to permitting unionization, Section 7 prohibits discrimination against employees who work together to improve working conditions.
Increasingly, the National Labor Relations Board has disagreed over the extent of these protections. The divide typically follows the political spectrum. Under a Democratic administration, the NLRB reads Section 7 more expansively in favor of workers. Republican administrations find the protections more limited, recognizing the inherent prerogative of business owners to control their enterprises.
Current NLRB Composition
The National Labor Relations Board “board” itself is comprised of five seats based in Washington, D.C. Each seat has a five-year term, with distinct expiration dates. As a result, control of the NLRB does not automatically shift with a change in presidential administrations.
President Biden entered office with only four of the five NLRB board seats filled. Three members are Republicans who President Donald Trump appointed. As the practice has been to have no more than three of the five seats filled by representatives of the president’s party, the fourth member is Democrat Lauren McFerran. Biden immediately named McFerran the new Chair of the NLRB, but has not yet filled the open seat. Republican William Emanuel’s term will expire on August 27, 2021. It is certain that Biden will not reappoint Emanuel at that time. Barring inability to gain Senate confirmation, both the currently vacant seat and Emanuel’s seat will be filled by Democrats. That will shift the Board to a pro-labor majority for the first time since August 2017.
The Board ultimately sets NLRB policy, primarily through adjudicating cases, but increasingly through formal rulemaking as well. However, it does not have absolute control of the NLRB’s activities. The General Counsel of the NLRB oversees the initial intake of cases and controls the prosecution of unfair labor practices. Accordingly, the GC has a pivotal function in guiding NLRB policy.
Breaking with historical practice, President Biden fired Trump’s Senate-confirmed General Counsel, Peter Robb, on his first day in office. Robb’s term wasn’t set to expire until November. Biden appointed Peter Sung Ohr as Acting GC. He has nominated Jennifer Abruzzo to fill the position on a permanent basis.
“Mutual Aid or Protection”
Reflecting a more aggressive enforcement policy, the Acting GC’s memo suggests an expansive view of what constitutes activities for employees’ “mutual aid or protection”. Indeed, he asserts, “employee advocacy can have the goal of ‘mutual aid or protection’ even when the employees have not explicitly connected their activity to workplace concerns”. In support of that conclusion, the memo references several cases decided by the NLRB when there was a Democratic majority.
According to the Acting GC, mutual aid or protection can extend to “employees’ political and social justice advocacy”. Among other examples, the memo points to “protests in response to a sudden crackdown on undocumented immigrants and the possible revival of workplace immigration raids” as conduct he would find protected by the NLRA because “the employees’ conduct . . . concerned issues within their employer’s control, like . . . willingness to hire immigrants.”
On such issues, the Acting GC effectively sets aside the views of the sitting NLRB majority: “I look forward to robustly enforcing the Act’s provisions that protect employees’ Section 7 rights with full knowledge that recent decisions issued by the current Board have restricted those protections”. The memo suggests that the NLRB will pursue cases falling in the gaps of the current majority’s reasoning regarding Section 7 rights, rather than directly rejecting it. However, there is much reason to be suspicious of that supposed distinction.
After acknowledging that “[p]rotected, concerted activity . . . begins with a conversation among employees,” the Acting GC’s memo asserts that “contemplation of group action may be indicative of concerted activity, [but] it is not a required element.” He argues that certain issues “are pivotal” to employees’ common interests such that any group discussions about them are “inherently concerted,” again citing a case decided by a Democratic majority. Despite emphasizing “inherently concerted” to be a “settled doctrine,” the Acting GC concedes, “it remains better articulated as an alternative argument in cases where concert may be proven by traditional means.”
The memo further recognizes that the Board has only found discussions to be inherently concerted when they involve “certain vital categories of workplace life”. These categories primarily include wages and compensation. But the Acting GC suggests that discussions of work schedules, job security, workplace health and safety, and racial discrimination (presumably among others) may also qualify. In conclusion, the Acting GC reports that: “In the future, I will be considering these and other appropriate applications of the inherently concerted doctrine in suitable cases.”
Employers Be Warned
It is not surprising that Biden’s NLRB General Counsel will follow a more aggressive enforcement policy. Yet, it is noteworthy that the Acting GC has blatantly announced his intention to begin doing so before his permanent replacement is confirmed. He also does so under a Republican Board majority that will remain in place for several more months.
Expect the NLRB’s regional offices to pursue more cases against employers now to line them up for a new Board majority toward the end of the year. This approach will expedite the predictable shift in labor policy to favor unions and employees more than was the case under the Trump administration.
Companies should be cautious before disciplining employees for any activities that may run afoul of the aggressive enforcement policy reflected in the Acting GC’s memorandum. Management should work with experienced labor counsel to balance the risks in such scenarios.
Despite current favorable Trump-era precedents, employers might also consider reviewing their policies and procedures that may come under renewed NLRB scrutiny. Examples include social media policies, confidentiality policies, work rules, and investigation procedures. Employers facing or anticipating unionizing campaigns should prioritize such a review. Arguably-minor unfair labor practice allegations can have a significant adverse impact on businesses as fodder for organizing efforts.