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Sep 1, 1995 12:00 AM
Employee involvement groups and quality teams have sprung up everywhere in the printing industry, addressing such issues as enhancing quality and productivity. Many companies believe these groups are an essential part of the decision-making process and will help them survive in today's competitive environment. However, keeping these groups legal in the eyes of federal law can be trying.
In 1992, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling that caught the attention of the business community. The case, known as Electromation, revolved around worker committees the employer set up to discuss attendance and bonus systems. After experiencing financial losses, the firm had cut expenses by altering an attendance bonus policy and giving year-end bonuses in lieu of wage increases.
Almost 70 employees signed a petition expressing displeasure with the change, and the corporation set up five action committees to make recommendations. Sign-up sheets were posted, and when the committees met they were encouraged "to go out among the other employees and find out what kind of ideas they had" concerning absenteeism/infractions, no-smoking policy, communication network, pay progression for premium positions and attendance bonus programs.
After the committees were formed, a union demanded recognition from the organization. Management immediately disbanded the committees, but told employees they could meet on their own time to discuss issues if they wished. The union filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, which ruled, along with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, that the committees were "employer-dominated labor organizations" and illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, (NLRA) Sections 8(a)(2) and 2(5).
Section 8(a)(2) states an unfair labor practice occurs when employers "dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it; provided that subject to rules and regulations made and published by the Board pursuant to section 6, employers shall not be prohibited from permitting employees to confer with employers during working hours Without loss of time or pay."
Section 2(5) of the Act defines a labor organization as "any organization of any kind, or any agency or employee representation committee or plan, in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work."
Electromation was found to violate the law because the subjects the committees dealt with involved attendance policies, bonuses and other matters that clearly constituted "conditions of employment." Furthermore, employees on the committees acted in a representational fashion, since they were encouraged to seek out and relay the opinions of other employees. Therefore the committees were considered "labor organizations."
However, even those NLRB members who ruled in the majority were split in their opinions. All three majority opinions noted some forms of employee involvement committees are lawful, but they disagreed over the legal standards for evaluation.
Some legal employee involvement groups deal with "conditions of employment" that fall under the definition of labor organization. For example, in non-union settings, peer review would fall under the definition, but the groups could violate the law if they were "employer dominated." If such committees negotiated with employers over employee grievances, they likely would be ruled illegal.
However, if employers delegated to such committees the authority to resolve employee grievances on their own, committees would be independent of management. Other committees of this type could deal with "conditions of employment" issues, but they must not negotiate with management, and only can exist for informational purposes. Management personnel may be on this committee, but should not control it by vetoing decisions.
Determining what is legal is up to interpretation and Congress is trying for a legislative fix. The TEAM Act bill currently being considered would exempt employee involvement programs from the NLRA while retaining the prohibition against "sham" company unions that the law initially was intended to prohibit. The 1930s NLRA did not know the kinds of innovative, cooperative arrangements being implemented in today's workplaces.
For more information on the TEAM Act, call the PIA Government Affairs Office at (703) 519-8113 for an informational sheet. PIA does not suggest printers should discontinue their employee involvement committees, but it recommends they stay informed of the potential liability.
BRIAN W. GILL Senior vice president of education and human relations, Printing Industries of America, Alexandria, VA