As early as March, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) plans to issue its final rules that will significantly narrow the type of union-avoidance activities that employers and their labor attorneys and relations consultants may engage in without having to report those activities to the government. The tightening of the so-call “persuader rules” will mean that employers who utilize labor relations consultants, including lawyers, to help with union-avoidance or collective bargaining activities will need to disclose many more of those activities, and the fees paid for them.

Evolution of the “Persuader Rules”

In the late 1950’s, because of perceived questionable conduct by both unions and employers involved in union organizing and collective bargaining campaigns, Congress enacted the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA). The LMRDA seeks to make labor-management relations more transparent by imposing reporting and disclosure requirements on labor organizations and their officials, employers, and labor relations consultants.

Under the LMRDA, the reporting requirements for employers and their labor consultants are triggered when they undertake activities intended to directly or indirectly persuade employees to exercise (or not to exercise) the employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Employers must file a Form LM-10 (Employer Report) that discloses all payments made to unions and union officials, persuader payments made to employees and employee committees, persuader agreements/arrangements made with labor relations consultants, including lawyers, which includes the amount and dates of payments made to such consultants, and any expenditures made to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees, or otherwise obtain information concerning employees or a labor organization. Labor relations consultants must file a Form LM-20 specifying, among other things, information about the consultant and the nature of the “persuader activities” to be performed. Under the LMRDA, the DOL must make all such forms available for public inspection.

The “Advice” Exemption 

The LMRDA contains an exemption from the reporting requirements for persuader activities for services that give “advice” to the employer. Except for brief periods when the LMRDA was first enacted and again in 2001, the DOL has interpreted this “advice” exemption to apply to activities where a consultant or lawyer prepares a speech or documents for use by the employer, or revises materials initially drafted by the employer. In other words, as long as the consultant or lawyer did not directly deliver or disseminatespeeches or materials to employees for the purpose of persuading them with respect to their organizational or bargaining rights, behind-the-scenes activities where the consultant/lawyer drafts materials for use by the employer would not trigger a reporting obligation. Under the proposed rules, that is about to change. 

Expanded Proposed Interpretation of “Advice” Exemption

Believing its long-standing interpretation of the “advice” exemption to be overly broad, the DOL proposed a narrower interpretation that would require reporting in any case in which the agreement or arrangement with a labor consultant/lawyer in any way calls for the consultant to engage in persuader activities, regardless of whether or not advice is also given. The revised interpretation would define reportable “persuader activity” to include activities where a lawyer or consultant provides material or communications to, or engages in other actions, conduct, or communications on behalf of an employer that at least in part, has the objective of persuading employees concerning their rights to organize or bargain collectively. Exempt “advice” would be limited to recommendations, verbal or written, regarding an employer’s decision or course of conduct.

Stated examples of covered persuader activities that would require disclosure include:

  • drafting, revising, or providing written materials for presentation, dissemination, or distribution to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing a speech, video, or multi-media presentation to be presented, shown or distributed to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing website content for employees
  • planning or conducting individual or group employee meetings, and training supervisors or employer representatives to do the same
  • coordinating or directing the activities of supervisors or employer representatives
  • establishing or facilitating employee committees
  • developing personnel policies or practices
  • deciding which employees to target for persuader activity or disciplinary action
  • conducting a seminar for supervisors or employer representatives

The DOL justifies this expansion of the reporting circumstances, in part, because the role of outside consultants and law firms in managing employers’ anti-union efforts has grown substantially over the years, citing reports that somewhere between 71% and 87% of employers facing organizing drives hire third-party consultants to assist in their counter-organizing efforts. The DOL also states that underreporting of persuader activities is a problem as “employees are not receiving the information that Congress intended they receive.” Regardless of its reasoning, the DOL’s proposed change of its 50-year old interpretation will result in significant burdens on both employers and their consultants.

March 2016 Is New Target Date for Final Rule

Almost five years has passed since the DOL published its proposed rule changing the “persuader rules.” After numerous delays in publishing its final rules, the DOL’s regulatory agenda indicates that it expects to issue the final “persuader rules” this March. We will let you know when the final rules are published, or if the timeline changes. In the meantime, you might want to take advantage of the next few months before the new rules kick in to obtain union-avoidance materials and training from your consultants now. At a minimum, talk to your labor relations consultant/labor lawyer about the upcoming changes so that you are aware of how they may impact your labor strategies in the future.