United States: The Big(Ger) Ba(Rgaini)Ng Theory

Last Updated: December 19 2017
Article by Bradford L. Livingston

In yet another significant decision overturning a controversial Obama-era ruling, the NLRB has reverted to its prior standards in determining what will be an appropriate bargaining unit for union organizing and bargaining. PCC Structurals, Inc., 365 NLRB No. 160 (December 15, 2017).  Just a day before his term on the Board ended leaving a vacancy and 2-2 split among its members, Chairman Miscimarra along with the two newest Board members appointed by President Trump — over the sharp dissent of the Board's two Democratic members — reversed the so-called "micro bargaining unit" test set out in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934 (2011). It's now a Big(ger) Ba(rgaini)ng Theory, or as Sheldon Cooper might say: Bazinga!

By way of background, bargaining units are the identifiable groups of employees that unions can organize, represent, and bargain for at an employer's facility or facilities. While the National Labor Relations Act for the most part does not define the specific requirements for who can be included in or excluded from any individual unit, it instead looks at whether the group shares enough common working conditions or "an appropriate community of interests."  Those interests can include an almost limitless number of factors, ranging from the employer's organizational, management and supervisory structure to which parking lots, break rooms or time clocks certain groups of employees use.  Sometimes a union may represent all employees except managers and supervisors who work at a single location.  Other times, they may represent just a particular craft (e.g., electricians), type of worker (e.g., clerical), or alternatively employees who work at multiple of the employer's locations.  Likewise, at any individual facility, an employer may be required to deal and negotiate separate labor agreements with (and face the possibility of a strike from) multiple different unions and bargaining units.

The composition of a bargaining unit is significant for both organizing and bargaining. Under the NLRA, it does not need to be the "most" appropriate unit, merely "an" appropriate unit.  When a union files an organizing petition with the NLRB, it has invariably self-selected the group of employees where the union feels it has the best chance of winning a representation election. Often, this may be a smaller group within any facility. Under Specialty Healthcare, the NLRB had ruled that so long as any group that a union selected was minimally appropriate, it would not entertain an employer's objections unless it could establish that other employees shared "an overwhelming" community of interest with the group the union wanted to represent. As cases under Specialty Healthcare found, working conditions need to "overlap almost completely" so that there was "no legitimate basis" for excluding others from the group the union sought to represent.  In effect, a union could often select a small group of employees within a much larger group, succeed in organizing them, and then it or other unions could try later to organize either other individual groups or the rest of the employees.  Divide and conquer.  Employers were faced with a greater likelihood of negotiating and administering different labor agreements with multiple individual bargaining units at the same facility.

In PCC Structurals, the NLRB reverted to its historical way of assessing any group that a union may seek to represent, looking at both the commonalities and differences in the employment relationship that the group shares with other coworkers.  In that case, the union sought to represent roughly 100 of over 2500 employees working at three of the employer's facilities in Oregon.  These 100 employees worked in different departments and had different supervisors, each of whom was responsible for supervising other employees that the union did not seek to represent. In rejecting the Specialty Healthcare test under which the smaller group was found appropriate, the Board emphasized that each case will need to be assessed individually and that a smaller unit will not necessarily be appropriate.  Bigger may be better. Bazinga!

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