Unions no longer will need to gather employees’ signatures on authorization cards before they can file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) for a representation election.  General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. has issued Memorandum 15-08 (pdf) announcing that effective immediately unions filing petitions will be allowed to submit and the Board will “accept electronic signatures in support of a showing of interest if the Board’s traditional evidentiary standards are satisfied.”

Acceptance of Electronic Signatures Flows from the Amended Election Rules

As the General Counsel points out, when the Board voted to adopt its Amended Election Rules in December 2014, it made clear that additional changes to the election procedures and rules were likely.  The Board held at that time that its regulations, as they then existed, were “sufficient to permit the use of electronic signatures” to form the basis for the 30% showing of interest required when a petition for an election is filed.  At that time the Board assigned to the General Counsel the responsibility “to determine whether, when and how electronic signatures can be practically accepted” and to “issue guidance on the matter.”

The Minimum Requirements for Electronic Signatures

For an electronic signature to be acceptable and considered authentic and reliable by the Board’s Regional Offices, the General Counsel has ruled that it must include the following information

  1. the signer’s name;
  2. the signer’s email address or other known contact information (e.g., social media account);
  3. the signer’s telephone number;
  4. the language to which the signer has agreed (e.g., that the signer wishes to be represented by ABC Union for purposes of collective bargaining or no longer wishes to be represented by ABC Union for purposes of collective bargaining);
  5. the date the electronic signature was submitted; and,
  6. the name of the employer of the employee

The Memorandum also explains the procedures for submission of a showing of interest based on electronic signatures as follows:

A party submitting electronic digital signatures must submit a declaration (1) identifying what electronic signature technology was used and explaining how its controls ensure: (i) that the electronic signature is that of the signatory employee, and (ii) that the employee herself signed the document; and (2) that the electronically transmitted information regarding what and when the employees signed is the same information seen and signed by the employees.3

When the electronic signature technology being used does not support digital signatures that lend itself to verification as described in paragraph 2, above, the submitting party must submit evidence that, after the electronic signature was obtained, the submitting party promptly transmitted a communication stating and confirming all the information listed in la through lf above (the “Confirmation Transmission”).

  1. The Confirmation Transmission must be sent to an individual account (i.e., email address, text message via mobile phone, social media account, etc.) provided by the signer.
  2. If any responses to the Confirmation Transmission are received by the time of submission to the NLRB of the showing of interest to support a petition, those responses must also be provided to the NLRB.
  3. Submissions supported by electronic signature may include other information such as work location, classification, home address, and additional telephone numbers, but may not contain dates of birth, social security numbers, or other sensitive personal identifiers. Submissions with sensitive personal identifiers will not be accepted and will be returned to the petitioner. They will not be accepted until personal identifiers are redacted

Questions Remain About Authentication

GC Memorandum 15-08 lays out the General Counsel’s instructions to the Board’s Regional Offices and to unions seeking to file elections under the new rules as to the nuts and bolts of collecting and verifying electronic signatures in place of actual signatures on cards that have been the norm since the NLRB began conducting elections 80 years ago and appears on its face to establish procedures for the agency’s employees to follow to verify the authenticity of electronic signatures submitted in support of a petition for an election, as anyone who has had even cursory experience with the Board’s handling of a union’s showing of interest knows, employers have little if any opportunity to meaningfully challenge a showing of interest even where it has substantial doubts as to its authenticity.  While the processes described in the Memorandum appear robust on their face, the fact remains that an employer or other interested party will never really know whether and to what degree the processes are being followed.

What Allowing Electronic Signatures Means

Although the General Counsel and the Board suggest that the decision to allow use of electronic signatures for a showing of interest is not significant and is consistent with the Board’s opinion that it is Congress’s intent that “that Federal agencies, including the Board, accept and use electronic forms and signatures, when practicable—i.e., when there is a cost-effective way of ensuring the authenticity of the electronic form and electronic signature given the sensitivity of the activity at issue, here the showing of interest,” it would be a mistake to view this development in isolation.

Rather, it should be seen as yet another demonstration of the fact that the Board and the General Counsel share the view that the purpose of the Act and the agency is to encourage and promote collective bargaining and make it easier for employees to unionize. The decision to allow electronic signatures should be viewed alongside theBoard’s decision last week in Browning Ferris Industries jettisoning its long standing test for determining joint employer status for a that looked to whether the entity claimed to be a joint employer had exercised direct and immediate control over the terms and conditions of employment of the workers in question, for a new far looser test that simply  asks whether the purported joint-employer possesses the authority to control the terms and conditions of employment, either directly or indirectly.”. As the Board puts it, “reserved authority to control terms and conditions of employment, even if not exercised, is clearly relevant to the joint-employment inquiry.”

Given the lowering of the bar for a union to obtain an election that is augured by the move to accept electronic signatures, effective immediately, we can certainly expect a continued increase in organizing and the filing of petitions, followed by ever faster elections.