For decades, employers had been free to gather employees to discuss – in a non-coercive manner – the employer’s views on unionization, and had been free to share with employees what employees’ rights were with respect to the same.  Earlier today, the NLRB General Counsel issued a memorandum declaring her intent to attempt to overturn this nearly 75 years of National Labor Relations Board precedent regarding an employer’s ability to speak to employees.  In GC Memorandum 22-04, issued on April 7, 2022, argues that mandatory “captive audience” meetings and even simple one-on-one conversations during work are unlawfully coercive.

The General Counsel’s initiative is the latest in a long line of new initiatives dating back to last August, previously discussed in this space – however, this particular change was not previously outlined by the GC in her most recent memo (in August 2021) outlining her enforcement priorities.

The General Counsel’s Theory

The General Counsel refers to the current legality of such meetings as an “anomaly” that is “contrary to the basic principles of labor law,” namely, in that such meetings are contrary to the NLRA’s protection of “employees’ right to listen as well as their right to refrain from listening to employer speech concerning the exercise of their Section 7 rights.”

The General Counsel suggests that such meetings are often held under the threat of discipline, express or implied, by virtue of an inherent pitting of employees’ reliance on employers for their livelihoods against these rights.  In other words, the General Counsel suggests that employees who skip such meetings may fear retribution from their employer.  Accordingly, under the General Counsel’s theory, such meetings fall outside the realm of constitutionally-protected free speech because of an alleged unlawful coercive effect.

Of course, Board law has been settled since 1948 on the legality of such meetings, starting with the Board’s decision in Babcock & Wilcox Co., 77 NLRB 577 (1948).  There, the Board held that an employers’ compelling attendance at such meetings does not violate the Act.

Going forward, the General Counsel suggests that employers must make clear that employees’ attendance is truly voluntary, similar to a Johnnie’s Poultry warning given to employees when an employer is investigating and preparing to defend against an unfair labor practice charge.

What Comes Next?

As we have noted before, a General Counsel Memorandum does not change the law in any respect.  However, it does signal that the General Counsel will be looking to bring a “test” case to the NLRB for a ruling in the near future.  Indeed, the General Counsel stated that she will ask the Board to consider its precedent in this area in “appropriate cases,” and also stated that “a brief will be submitted to the Board shortly” on the subject.  At that point, the Board will decide whether to overturn over seventy years of precedent, with appeals likely to follow.

Stay tuned.