The National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB” or the “Board”) has continued to look outside of unionized workplaces to address potential violations of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”), which sets forth the right of employees to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” We highlight below several of the agency’s latest pronouncements, as they provide a window of understanding into the NLRB’s enforcement activities.
Second Circuit to Address the NLRA and Social Media
At this point, it is no surprise that employees may use social media to engage in protected Section 7 activity. In Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille, Case 34-CA-012915 and 012926, 361 NLRB 31 (Aug. 22, 2014), the Board held that “likes” on a Facebook post can be protected speech if the post concerns labor practices. However, the employer argued that the employees lost protection under the Act when their Facebook “likes” adopted defamatory and disparaging comments regarding the employer. The Board explained that Section 7 rights exercised off-duty and off-site are balanced against the employer’s interest in preventing the disparagement of its products or services and protecting its reputation from defamation (following the standard articulated in NLRB v. Electrical Workers Local 1229, 346 U.S. 464 (1953), also known as the Jefferson Standard). Because the Triple Play employees were not disparaging the employer’s products or services and the wage error they were discussing had in fact occurred, the NLRB found that the balance fell in favor of the employees’ Section 7 rights. Triple Play has filed an appeal with the Second Circuit in what likely will be the first federal court decision addressing the NLRA in the context of social media activity.
There Is a Limit to Protected Activity on Facebook
Testing the outer boundaries of what constitutes Section 7 activity, the NLRB ruled in favor of an employer in Richmond District Neighborhood Center, Case 20-CA- 09174, 3361 NLRB 74 (Oct. 28, 2014), where employees had clearly engaged in concerted insubordination. The two employees were activity leaders at a teen after-school program. In Facebook posts on one employee’s page that were laden with profanity, the employees described their plans to execute activities without the requisite permission, subvert rules, undermine management, disregard their duties, and endanger the future of the program. The NLRB found that the employees’ conduct crossed the line:
We find the pervasive advocacy of insubordination in the Facebook posts, comprised of numerous detailed descriptions of specific insubordinate acts, constituted conduct objectively so egregious as to lose the Act’s protection and render [the employees] unfit for further service.
The Board explained that the employees’ comments could not be explained away as jokes or hyperbole, and the employer had a reasonable expectation that the employees would execute their plans, adding that the employer “was not obliged to wait for the employees to follow through on the misconduct they advocated.”
Time to Review Media Policies
While explored in a union context and discussed in an opinion addressing other alleged union-related violations, a San Francisco ALJ’s recent opinion regarding an employer’s news media policy should give employers in non-unionized workplaces pause. In Phillips 66 and United Steel, Paper and Forestry et al., Cases 31-CA-085243 and 096709, the employer’s news media policy prohibited employees from providing news media with information concerning the company’s “operations” and stated that it is “against company policy for anyone but an authorized company spokespersons [sic] to speak to the news media.” The ALJ found that employees would reasonably interpret the policy as forbidding them from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment. Because the term “operations” is so broad and there was no clarification regarding the employer’s intent to limit communications made on behalf of the company, the ALJ ruled that the employer’s policy violated the NLRA.
In light of this decision, and in connection with many of the NLRB’s past decisions concerning social media policies, employers should review any media communications policies to ensure that they do not run afoul of the NLRA. However, employers can take some solace in the fact that the courts are more receptive than the NLRB to employers’ arguments concerning social media and Section 7 rights