Labor Risks Rising For Employers Despite NLRB Loss Of Arizona Secret Ballot Challenge

Ms. Cynthia Marcotte Stamer
September 10, 2012 — 2,850 views  
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Businesses concerned about Obama Administration-backed efforts to promote its pro-labor agenda must stay diligent despite the set back suffered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in its attempt to a Federal Judge to challenge state laws that purport to require secret balloting in union elections in NLRB v. State of Arizona.

Federal District Judge Frederick J. Martone handed the NLRB a temporary setback in its campaign to prevent states from enacting legislation that would interfere with NLRB efforts to  strengthen labor organizing powers by restricting secret ballot protections when he rejected the NLRB claims that an Arizona Constitutional Amendment mandating secret balloting in union elections was an unconstitutional infringement on the NLRB’s powers in his September 5, 2012 decision in NLRB v. State of Arizona,   the Court left the door open for a potentially successful challenge to the Arizona secret ballot amendment in the future depending on how Arizona applies the law.  Furthermore, considered in the context of the Obama Administration's broader pro-union regulatory and enforcement agenda, the NLRB's challenge to the Arizona and other state secret ballot laws reminds businesses  that their operation face a minefield of mounting labor-management relations risks.  In light of these expanding exposures, business leaders should update their policies and practices to mitigate the rising risks while keeping a close eye on the Obama Administration's ongoing effort to expand the power of organized labor by challenging secret ballot mandates in Arizona and other states and the plethora of other pro-union regulatory and enforcement  efforts

NLRB Attacks On Workers’ Secret Balloting Rights

Undermining worker's secret ballot rights is a key initiative that organized labor with the support of the Obama Administration has promoted to help union organization efforts.

Secret balloting of workers in union organizing elections is designed to promote the ability of worker's to vote their wishes free from the fear of retaliation by unions or management.  It has been a key element of the NLRA since its enactment.

The current method for workers to form a union in a particular workplace generally is a two-step process that begins with the submission by organizers to the NLRB of a petition or authorization card signed by at least 30% of the employees requesting recognition of the union. Under existing law, once the NLRB verifies that the organizers have met the petition or authorization card requirement, it generally orders a secret ballot election unless more than 50% of the workers have signed authorization cards and either:

  • The employer notifies the NLRB that it is waiving the secret ballot and voluntarily recognizing the union; or
  • The NLRB orders the employer to recognize a union based on the NLRB's determination that the employer has engaged in unfair labor practices that make a fair election unlikely.

Since the Obama Administration came to power, however, labor with the support of the NLRB and the Obama Administration have included efforts to eliminate or circumvent secret balloting as part of their broader campaign to strengthen and promote unions and their power.  These efforts are reflected in the sharp increase in orders by the NLRB with new Obama appointees that employers recognize unions without balloting,  the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats are pushing to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make union recognition mandatory without any balloting whenever the NLRB verifies that over 50% of the employees signed authorization cards, and challenges to state laws that would impede these efforts like that brought against the State of Arizona.  While Congressional Democrats and the Administration have thus far failed to get the legislation passed, they continue to voice their support for and intention to pursue its enactment after the elections in November.

NLRB’s Challenge To Arizona Constitution’s Secret Ballot Provision

In NLRB v. State of Arizona, Judge Frederick J. Martone on September 5, 2012 handed the NLRB a temporary setback in its campaign to prevent states from enacting legislation that would interfere with its efforts to circumvent or eliminate secret ballot protection when it granted the State of Arizona’s motion to dismiss the case but left the door open for future action.

As Federal legislation and enforcement actions that would limit workers' rights to vote in a secret ballot rights have continued, Arizona and various other states have enacted laws to protect secret ballot rights in their states.

In January 2011, the NLRB advised Arizona and three other states that recently-adopted “secret-ballot amendments” conflicted with longstanding federal labor law by restricting the methods by which employees can choose a union. When no agreement could be reached, the NLRB filed suit to have the Arizona amendment declared unconstitutional.

The Arizona lawsuit challenged a 2010 constitutional amendment to the Arizona Constitution that states”[t]he right to vote by secret ballot for employee representation is fundamental and shall be guaranteed where local, state or federal law permits or requires elections, designations or authorizations for employee representation.”  Arizona Constitution, Article 2 § 37.  In its lawsuit, the NLRB asked the Federal Court to declare Article 2 § 37 unconstitutional and preempted to the extent that it applies to private employers, private employees, and labor organizations subject to the NLRA on the grounds that the state secret ballot rule “creates a state forum to protect employee representation rights, a task which Congress assigned exclusively to the NLRB.

Among its other efforts to defend the statute, Arizona argued there was no preemption because the state’s “guarantee” of a secret ballot election would only apply if and when the voluntary recognition option is not selected.

In reaching its ruling, the Federal Court hung its hat on this argument.  “It is possible that state litigation invoking (the amendment) may impermissibly clash with the NLRB’s jurisdiction to resolve disputes over employee recognition, conduct secret ballot elections, and address unfair labor practices,” Judge Martone wrote.  However, because the amendment has not yet been applied, Judge Martone wrote that he could not assume that it would conflict with the NLRA.

Arizona Decision A Temporary Victory In Battle In Labor-Management Relations War

While the court rejected the NLRB challenge of the Arizona secret ballot requirement this week, the NLRB’s announced disagreement with the decision coupled with the limited scope of the ruling makes clear that businesses should be on the watch for another NLRB challenge based on the implementation of the law as well as other new regulatory and enforcement traps for employers. 

The court battle over Arizona’s secret ballot amendment is just one of the many areas where the NLRB under the Obama Administration is pursuing a pro-union agenda.  In addition to challenging state laws that might operate to restrict union organizing or other activities, the NLRB also has adopted and is promoting the adoption of other pro-labor rules as well as stepping up enforcement on behalf of labor. See e.g., NLRB Moves To Promote Non-Union Employee Use of Collective Action Rights By Launching Webpage; NLRB Report Shows Rise In Unfair Labor Practice Complaints  Formal Proceedings Comments Feed; NLRB Settlement Shows Care Necessary When Using Social Networking & Other Policies Restricting Employee Communications.  As part of these efforts, for instance, the NLRB increasingly is challenging the authority of employers to enforce mandatory arbitration provisions in employee handbooks or employment agreements, to regulate social media, and to engage in a broad range of other common employer practices while at the same time, it is using its regulatory powers to promote employer posting and other requirements designed to educate workers about their organizational rights.  These and other evolving rules often leave employers exposed to significant and often underappreciated labor law risks in a broad range of circumstances.

Costly Consequences For Employers

This pro-labor regulatory and enforcement agenda as resulted in a significant rise in NLRB unfair labor practice charges in recent years.  According to NLRB statistics, the number of unfair labor practice charges brought by the NLRB steadily rose from 2009 to 2011.  The number of charges filed by was 1,342 in 2011, 1,242 in 2010, 1,166 in 2009 and 1,108 in 2008.  Moreover, NLRB statistics also document that backpay and other remedies also have risen sharply during this period.  For instance, in 2008, the NLRB ordered a total of $68,800,000 in backpay, fees, dues and fines in 9,400 cases.  In contrast, in 2009, the NLRB ordered $77,700,000 in backpay, fees, dues and fines against employers even though the number of cases dropped to 8,700,000 cases.  This trend continued in 2010, where out of 8,300 cases, the NLRB ordered employers to pay $86,100,000 in backpay, fees, dues and fines.  See NLRB Statistics. See also NLRB Case Decisions.

In light of this increased activism, employers should exercise care when using mandatory arbitration, compensation gag rule, or other similar provisions; dealing with requests for employee representation by union and non-union employees in organizing, contracting and even disciplinary actions; establishing and administering social networking, communication and other policies; and a wide range of other situations. In addition, employers concerned about these or other labor activities should consult competent counsel for advice about appropriate options and risks for dealing with these activities. 

If you have any questions or need help reviewing and updating your organization’s employment and/or employee practices in response to the NLRA or other applicable laws, or if we may be of assistance with regard to any other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

Ms. Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a Board Certified labor and employment management attorney and consultant, author and speaker with 25 years experience helping management manage. Her HR and management insights are widely published and quoted.