Federal regulators decided Thursday employers can’t stop workers from organizing and forming unions over company email in their free time.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees labor disputes and union elections in the private sector, reversed a Bush-era policy banning employees from using company email systems to discuss how to improve wages and working conditions during non-work hours.
The case finalized Thursday between sign language interpretation service provider Purple Communications and the Communications Workers of America found that the 2007 decision focused “too much on employers’ property rights and too little on the importance of email as a means of workplace communication, [and] the Board failed to adequately protect employees’ rights,” the decision states.
Purple Communications prohibited its employees from using computers, internet, voicemail, email and any company equipment for anything other than work. Labor union Communications Workers of America petitioned the NLRB to reverse the policy because it was restrictive and interfered in employees’ ability to vote in union elections.
But the ruling has two exceptions: Only employees who already have company email access can organize using the systems, and employers can ban email use during non-work hours to maintain production or discipline under special circumstances that require limited access.
Low-wage worker strikes led by unions have been fighting labor issues such as wage theft, lack of benefits and poor working conditions. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Walmart workers nationwide walked out in protest of the fact they were required to work during the federal holiday. Chipotle workers shut down the store in September after walking off the job and posting a note about sweatshop-like conditions.
In the tech industry, unionized Amazon workers went on strike in Germany to protest low wages and long hours created by increased pre-holiday order volumes. Silicon Valley bus drivers who shuttle Facebook employees and other tech workers to and from work unionized to fight grueling 16-hour shifts that forced many to sleep in their buses. Home health workers have also started to organize a campaign to boost wages to $15 an hour.
Employers have continually worked to diminish workers’ ability to organize, often firing employees who attempt to strike or unionize. The NLRB found that fast food workers at a Detroit-area Burger King were falsely accused of violating store policies, sent home and prohibited from talking about strikes or unions at work following pro-union demonstrations.
Outside of food service, Walmart has also struggled with labor law violations and unions. The NLRB vowed in 2013 to prosecute the big box retailer for firing, disciplining, and threatening workers who went on strike or attempted to unionize.
Union membership plummeted in recent years largely due to employer retaliation. The number of Americans in unions is now less than 12 percent — half of what it was in 1954. Americans are split on how they see unions, with just 51 percent viewing unions favorably and 42 percent who don’t, according to Pew Research. Additionally, while more than two-thirds feel unions are necessary to protect workers’ rights, 57 percent of Americans think unions have too much power.