By: Ryan Kennedy
Section 7 of the United States’ National Labor Relations Act allows groups of American workers to engage in concerted activity for the purposes of collective bargaining or for “other mutual aid or protection.” This latter protection has been extended in cases such as Lafayette Park Hotel to workers outside the union context. Starting in 2005, the National Labor Relations Board increasingly signaled to employers that concerted activity may take place on social media such as Facebook. However, the Board proper delivered its first written opinion articulating these rules in the 2012 case of Hispanics United of Buffalo, Inc. There, the Board found the employer in question to have committed multiple unfair labor practices when it fired five employees over a series of Facebook posts due to violating the employer’s zero-tolerance no bullying policy.
This article argues that the majority opinion of the Board misapplied Lafayette Park Hotel’s test for whether employer conduct “would reasonably tend to chill employees” from legitimate, protected uses of their §7 rights. This article explains the two largest errors in the Board’s decision: (1) a failure to identify a missing, important element for concerted activity protection under §7, the nexus between employee discussion and contemplated group action, and (2) asserting an “inferred group intent” existed that was “implicitly manifest” which linked the employees’ Facebook posts to contemplated group action protected under §7.
Members of the entire Board, as well as other legal scholars writing on this topic, have been guilty at different times of simplifying social media to being like a “virtual water cooler” for the 21st century. The facts in Hispanics United show why this analogy does not work: rather than a short face-to-face conversation with a finite, known audience in the space of minutes, it was a series of written messages plopped down in sequential order throughout an entire day, written for an audience of unknown size and make-up that may not even include the co-workers it ostensibly addressed. As Hispanics United helps illustrate, the proper handling of employer retaliation on social media remains the sensible application of the established nexus requirement for finding concerted activity.
Cite: 12 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 182