Labor Board to Review Use of Employer Email for Union Activity

The National Labor Relations Board is reviewing a federal law that permits private employers to bar workers from using company email accounts for union activities.

Any change could have significant implications for adjunct faculty members and others in terms of their right to use private colleges’ electronic communications systems for actions like discussing the terms and conditions of employment and whether they want to unionize, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, based at the City University of New York’s Hunter College.

The potential impact of the review extends beyond higher education and cuts across industries. The National Labor Relations Board began soliciting briefs on the matter on Wednesday.

The review of existing law was born out of a 2012 labor dispute. In that case, the Communications Workers of America, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, sought to represent workers at two locations of a translation-service company in Southern California, but failed to garner enough votes. The union subsequently challenged the results, alleging that the employer, Purple Communications, had committed unfair labor practices by barring employees from using company email for union activity.

Any change in existing law would require the NLRB to overturn its own 2007 precedent in a case involving The Register-Guard, an Oregon newspaper, in which it decided that employees have no statutory right to use an employer’s email for union activities. The Communications Workers of America has called on the NLRB to write a new rule.

“It is clear that the current National Labor Relations Board is interested in re-examining whether that legal conclusion was correct,” Mr. Herbert said, referring to the 2007 decision. In the years since then, President Obama’s Democratic nominees have formed a majority of the board.

A review of the decision stacks the “right to association, which is codified in the National Labor Relations Act, against the common-law property interests of private employers, including of private universities and colleges,” Mr. Herbert said. “The question of this balance is the core of the final determination on this case.”

If the Register-Guard precedent were to be overturned, “contingent faculty and other employees in private universities would then have a statutory right to utilize the employers’ computer equipment for purposes of engaging in” what would be considered protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act, Mr. Herbert said.

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