Whether you employ unionized employees or not, Nebraska employers must be aware of the concept of protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Employees who engage in concerted (i.e., joint) efforts with co-workers to address their working conditions or terms of employment, may be engaging in conduct protected by federal law. Terminating or disciplining because of that conduct can give rise to an unfair labor practice charge before the National Labor Relations Board. Recently, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions govern Nebraska employers) recognized the difference between protected concerted activity and employee conduct that is disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue—and not protected. Read on to better understand the important distinction!
MikLin Enterprises (“MikLin”) owns and operates ten Jimmy John’s sandwich shops in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Michael Mulligan is the owner and co-owner and Robert Mulligan is the vice-president. MikLin workers started an organizing campaign, attempting to gain union representation by the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”).
As part of the campaign, employees demanded paid sick leave. The MikLin handbook stated that MikLin did not allow people to simply call in sick ̶ they were required to find their own replacements for any time off. The IWW began posting on community bulletin boards in MikLin stores. These posters contained two identical Jimmy John’s sandwiches next to each other and stated above one sandwich: “Your sandwich made by a healthy Jimmy John’s worker,” and above the other identical sandwich: “Your sandwich made by a sick Jimmy John’s worker.” Below the sandwich was the question, “Can’t tell the difference?” followed by: “That’s too bad because Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days. Shoot we can’t even call in sick.”
MikLin managers quickly removed the posters from the stores. IWW dispersed a press release, posters, and a letter to over 100 media contacts. It discussed “unhealthy company behavior” and concluded by threatening that if Robert and Michael Mulligan would not meet with the IWW supporters to discuss their demands, “dramatic action” would be taken and they would display their posters around the city. Within the letter, there was an assertion that MikLin stores committed health code violations daily. The letter went on to state that because of the sick leave policy, MikLin was jeopardizing the health of their customers.
Four IWW organizers met with Mulligan, and he stated that MikLin was in the process of amending its policies. The new policy involved a point system for absences. If an employee received four disciplinary points in a twelve-month period, he or she would be terminated. This new policy stated that employees were not allowed to work until any flu-like symptoms had subsided for a 24-hour period.
After the implementation of the new policy, the IWW supporters followed through with their threat but this time created posters with Mulligan’s phone number on them, encouraging people to call him. Mulligan and store managers removed these posters and Mulligan fired six employees who organized the campaign and delivered written warnings to three others who aided in the attack. This gave rise to charges of unfair labor practices.
NLRB Finds an Unfair Labor Practice
The Administrative Law Judge with the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that MikLin violated Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3), of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects concerted activities of employees ̶ “Section 7 of the NLRA protects employee communications to the public that are part of and related to an ongoing labor dispute.” Employee communications are not protected if they are “disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue.” To lose protected status, the employee communications must have been made with a “malicious motive” or have been “made with knowledge of the statements’ falsity or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.”
The ALJ determined that the posters, press release, and letter were all related to the ongoing labor dispute as they dealt with the sick leave issue. Although the posters were not literally true (employees could call in sick; they just had to find coverage for their missed shift), employees were disciplined if they failed to find a replacement. Therefore, it was a “protected hyperbole,” or somewhat exaggerated truth.
The ALJ also found that, even though MikLin had only been investigated twice by the Minnesota Department of Health for food borne disease, it was possible that MikLin’s sick leave policy could increase the risk of food borne disease. Again, that statement was considered to be true or hyperbole.
The ALJ ruling then went to the NLRB. A divided NLRB affirmed the ALJ’s conclusions. It determined that the posters were clearly related to the ongoing labor dispute over the sick leave and the statements were not “so disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue so as to lose the Act’s protections.”
The Eighth Circuit Declines to Enforce Much of the NLRB’s Ruling
(1) “Sick Day” Poster Issues
The court noted that an employer commits unfair labor practices if it terminates an employee for engaging in activities that are protected under the NLRA, including communications to third parties or the public that are utilized to improve their position as employees. But, Section 10(c) of the NLRA allows employers to terminate employees for cause.
Courts have determined that disloyalty to an employer amounts to “cause” under Section 10 (c). In determining disloyalty, the central question is “whether employee public communications reasonably targeted the employer’s labor practices, or indefensibly disparaged the quality of the employer’s product or services.” The former is protected and the latter is not. The court also stated that an employee’s disloyal statements can lose protection under section 7 of the NLRA without a showing that the statements were made with actual malice.
Here the court agreed with the NLRB that the sick day posters, press release, and letter were related to other section 7 protected concerted activity intended “to improve the terms and conditions of their employ by obtaining paid sick leave.” However, the court determined that the posters, press release, and letter were not protected because they were a “sharp, public, disparaging attack upon the quality of the company’s product and its business policies.” This was evidenced here by the fact that the posters, press release, and letter were done to convince customers that they may get sick if they eat a Jimmy John’s sandwich, attacking the product itself. An allegation that a food industry employer is selling unhealthy food is the “equivalent of a nuclear bomb” in a labor-relations dispute. The nature of the attack was likely to outlive, and also unnecessary to aid, the labor dispute.
The court also determined that claims about the sandwiches were “materially false and misleading.” The press release and the letter claimed that MikLin committed health code violations daily, putting customers at risk of getting sick. The court stated that these were not true statements, evidenced by MikLin’s record with the Minnesota Department of Health over ten years and requiring employees to call in sick if they have had any flu-like symptoms in the previous 24 hours.
In sum, MikLin had cause to terminate and discipline the employees involved.
(2) Facebook Postings by MikLin Supervisors
The Eighth Circuit considered other aspects of the NLRB ruling. As the IWW began organizing, a MikLin employee created a “Jimmy John’s Anti-Union” Facebook page. On this page, MikLin employees posted disparaging comments about an IWW supporter. The ALJ determined that these posts violated section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by encouraging harassment of the IWW supporter, which the NLRB affirmed.
The appeals court determined that the public disparagement and degradation of the union supporter “restrained or coerced MikLin employees in the exercise of their section 7 rights” out of fear they would suffer similar treatment if they chose to support the IWW. Thus, this aspect of the NLRB ruling was enforced.
(3) Removal of In-Store Union Literature
After losing the first election, the IWW had filed unfair labor practice charges and objections to the election with the NLRB. MikLin and the IWW settled by stipulating to set aside the election and hold a re-run election. After this, a MikLin employee posted a notice on a bulletin board to the employees (pursuant to the settlement) of the settlement and what it meant. A union supporter posted next to this notice an IWW “FAQ about the Union Election & Settlement.” The IWW post was taken down repeatedly. The ALJ had determined that this was a violation of section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, and the NLRB affirmed.
The court enforced the NLRB’s order on this issue. Section 8(a)(1) protects employees’ rights to “bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Removal of the IWW poster interfered with union supporters’ right to communicate about their organization in violation of section 7 of the NLRA.
Miklin Enterprises, Inc. v. NRLB, Nos. 14-3099 & 14-3211 (8th Cir. July 3, 2017).
Bottom Line for Employers
If you face efforts from employees that may deal with their working conditions or terms of their employment but believe they may be acting in a disloyal, reckless, or malicious way, contact your employment and labor attorney to fully discuss the issue.
Bonnie Boryca may be reached at (402) 397-2200 and firstname.lastname@example.org.