The National Labor Relations Act: Protections for Employee Concerted Activity

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right, among others, to unionize, to join together to advance their interests as employees, and to refrain from such activity. 29 U.S.C. § 151–169. The NLRA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the law, including their right to engage in concerted activity to advance their interests as workers. For example, employers may not respond to a union organizing drive by threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees, or by promising employees benefits for not participating in the union. But even when no union is involved, employers may not punish employees for banding together and speaking up in an effort to improve their working conditions.

Background

Congress enacted the NLRA in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy. Among other things, Congress expressed an intent for the NLRA to address the “inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate … form[].” Congress found that this inequality of bargaining power between employees and their employers “substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.” 29 U.S.C § 151. Congress further determined that enacting legal protections for employees to “organize and bargain collectively” would have the effects of “encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions, and…restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” Id.

Section 7: The Right to Self-Organize and Engage in Concerted Activity

Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees “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,” as well as the right “to refrain from any or all such activities.” 29 U.S.C. § 157.

In general, the NLRA, therefore, gives employees the right to engage in both union and certain non-union activities aimed at improving working conditions. With respect to employee union rights, these include the right to attempt to form a union where none currently exists, or to decertify a union that the employees no longer support. Examples of employee rights relating to unions include: being fairly represented by a union; forming, or attempting to form, a union in the workplace; joining a union, regardless of whether the union is recognized by the employer; assisting a union in organizing fellow employees; and refusing to do any of these things.

Regardless of whether a union is involved, employees still have rights to band together and speak up about their working conditions. Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees this right to “engage in other concerted activities for the … mutual aid or protection” of fellow workers. 29 U.S.C. § 157. This right does not require a union. The NLRA therefore protects the rights of employees to engage in “concerted activity,” and this happens when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. It is also possible for a single employee to engage in protected “concerted activity” if she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action. Id. Examples of protected concerted activities include: two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay; two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other; or one employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions. Id.

For more information about non-union concerted activities, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) publishes a protected concerted activity page, which includes descriptions of real-life concerted activity cases.

Section 8: Protections Against Interference with Concerted Activity

Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, among other things, prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. In short, this section makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the NLRA, including the right of employees to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid or protection. 29 U.S.C. § 158. An employer therefore cannot terminate an employee for engaging in concerted activity protected by Section 7.

Concerted Activity and Social Media

The range of activity that constitutes concerted activity protected from employer interference can include employee interactions on social media. For example, in Three D, LLC d/b/a Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille v. N.L.R.B., 629 F. App’x 33 (2d Cir. 2015), an employee posted a Facebook status update protesting an employer’s purported failure to properly calculate tax withholding: “Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money . . . WTF!!!!” Another employee commented: “I owe too. Such an asshole.” Another employee “liked” the post. Based on these comments, the employer, Triple Play, terminated two of the employees. Id. at 36-37.

The NLRB determined that the employees’ comments were protected concerted activity, and therefore the terminations violated the NLRA. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. The appeals court agreed with the NLRB that the employees’ Facebook comments were “protected concerted activity” because: (1) the comments were “concerted activity” because they were exchanged among current Triple Play employees; and (2) the comments were “protected” because they “concerned workplace complaints about tax liabilities, [Triple Play’s] tax withholding calculations, and [and emloyee’s]  assertion that she was owed back wages.” Id. at 36

Significantly, as explained in detail in this ABA article, the court’s finding of “protected concerted activity” alone did not mean the employer violated the NLRA by terminating the employees. Rather, the Court held, an employee’s right to engage in concerted activity “must be balanced against an employer’s interest in preventing disparagement of his or her products or services and protecting the reputation of his or her business.” Three D, LLC v. N.L.R.B., 629 F. App’x at 35. Therefore, an employee’s otherwise protected public comments may lose their Section 7 protection if they are “sufficiently disloyal or defamatory.” Id. (cites omitted). “These communications may be sufficiently disloyal to lose the protection of the [NLRA] if they amount to criticisms disconnected from any ongoing labor dispute.” Id. (cites omitted).

The court found the Triple Play employees’ comments were not “disloyal or defamatory” because they did not mention Triple Play’s products or services. Further, their Facebook comments were not “disconnected” from an ongoing labor dispute: they were directly connected to the employees’ dispute with Triple Play about the employer’s tax withholding calculations. The fact that the post at issue contained profanity did not alter this analysis, even though customers conceivably could have seen the profanity, as the court decided that disqualifying concerted activity from protection based on social media profanity would have an “undesirable result of chilling virtually all employee speech online.” Id. at 37.

The NLRB has published detailed guidance regarding the implications of social media activity on employee rights (and employer obligations) under the NLRA.

Process for Reporting Possible Violations of the NLRA

The National Labor Relations Board investigates possible violations of the NLRA, including the concerted activity provisions. For information about how to report a possible violation to the NLRB, and the NLRB investigation process, try this link.

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