Labor relations involves the complex interactions and dynamics between employers, employees, and labor unions within the context of the workplace. In recent years, labor relations in the United States have continued to evolve due to changes in workforce demographics, emerging technologies, and shifts in political and social priorities. These changes can affect the ways in which labor unions and employers interact, negotiate, and address issues related to the modern workforce. In a significant move, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently handed down a decision in the case of Stericycle, Inc., which has the potential to tip the balance of power in favor of employees. As employers and employees navigate the intricacies of the Stericycle ruling, consulting with an experienced employment attorney can help to properly follow the many employment laws that constantly change.
The NLRB functions as an independent federal agency responsible for upholding the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (the Act). Enacted in 1935, the Act safeguards the rights of most private sector workers to organize and work together to increase their compensation, create safer working conditions, and choose who they want to represent them for negotiation purposes, among other rights. The NLRB’s role is to investigate and prosecute alleged violations of the Act by private sector employers and labor unions.
Stericycle, Inc., a prominent medical waste disposal company, found itself at the center of a labor dispute around its workplace policies and rules. The core issue centered on allegations of unfair labor practices committed by Stericycle, particularly in relation to its employees’ efforts to unionize. The case involved questions about the scope of protected “concerted activity.” Under Section 7 of the Act, concerted activity includes activities like openly talking about pay and benefits, circulating a petition asking for better hours, participating in a collective refusal to work in unsafe conditions, and joining with co-workers to talk directly to the employer, an agency, or the media about problems in the workplace.
In its decision, the NLRB clarified that an employer’s policy or rule that concerns any concerted activity will be interpreted from the perspective of the employee, on a case-by-case basis, without regard for the employer’s supposed intent in adopting its workplace rule. The NLRB held that if an employee could reasonably interpret the rule to discourage or punish concerted activity, there is a presumption that the rule is unlawful, “even if a contrary, noncoercive interpretation of the rule is also reasonable.” On the other hand, an employer may defend its workplace rule by stating a “legitimate and substantial business interest and that the employer is unable to advance that interest with a more narrowly tailored rule.” In short, this new standard is helpful to employees because an employer’s rule is assumed to be unlawful, regardless of its intent, so long an employee could reasonably interpret the rule as a limit on their concerted activity rights. Stericycle is another recent NLRB decision that tips the scale in favor of protecting employees.
The Stericycle decision holds several important implications for both employers and employees:
For both employers and employees post-Stericycle, a renewed focus on understanding the boundaries of protected concerted activity, employer communication, and workplace policies is imperative. The Stericycle decision serves as a reminder that labor laws are dynamic, adapting to the changing landscape of work. It reinforces the importance of fostering fair labor relations for employees – who are often at an economic disadvantage in the employment relationship. If you have questions about compliance with this new decision, reach out to a member of our team for guidance.