The Electrical Worker online
June 2015

NLRB to Verizon: Union Signs Fine
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The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Verizon New England management violated its workers' rights when they ordered members of Springfield, Mass., Local 2324 to stop displaying pro-union signs in their cars while on company property.

"This is a huge win and it could not have come at a better time," said Local 2324 Business Manager John Rowley. "We are on the precipice of a new round of bargaining and now we have a clear idea of what we can do."

The board's decision reversed an arbitration board finding about the 2008 action, when signs reading "Verizon, Honor Our Existing Contract" and "Honor Our Contract" were visible in the windshields of their cars parked at three Verizon facilities in Massachusetts. The collective bargaining agreement with Verizon prohibited strikes and pickets, and the company said the unattended signs were the equivalent of a picket line, and ordered them removed.

"We disagreed, but when they threatened suspensions, my attitude was to comply and complain," Rowley said. He filed a complaint with the NLRB.

But the NLRB initially deferred the complaint to the grievance and arbitration process in Local 2324's agreement with Verizon, forcing the local to go to arbitration. A three-member arbitration panel ruled against the IBEW, writing that a "picket does not have to be a sign on a stick."

The local then returned to the NLRB, asking the board to reverse the arbitration panel's decision. Nearly seven years after Local 2324 filed its initial charge, the board agreed with Local 2324's position: this was not picketing.

"A necessary element of picketing is personal confrontation," the board wrote in their decision. "The signs here were merely posted in unattended vehicles … no one was stationed by the picket signs, and there is no evidence of any coercion or intimidation… the employees' conduct was not picketing."

Lucas Aubrey, an attorney at Sherman, Dunn, Cohen, Leifer & Yellig, the general counsel for the IBEW, said the decision was an important expansion of workers' protections by the Obama board and a reversal from years of anti-worker Bush appointees.

"This is an important win we would not have gotten from a Republican board," Aubrey said.

Picketing is limited under the National Labor Relations Act in a way that free speech is not. But where free speech ends and picketing begins has shifted over time depending on the composition of the board, Aubrey said. Over the past few decades, when there have been more Republican appointees on the board, more organizing and solidarity activities get grouped with picketing and are restricted by employers.

"There are very few restrictions allowed on speech, but the courts have decided that picketing is more than just speech, it is coercive," Aubrey said. "At issue in this case was how much control companies will have over employee actions."

Putting limits on arbitration?

Aubrey said that almost as important as the content of the decision is that the board made it at all. NLRB rules existing at the time the local filed its initial charge didn't allow an arbitrator's decision to be ignored simply because members of the NLRB wouldn't have reached the same conclusion. To decide in a dispute that had already been submitted to an arbitrator, the board had to conclude that the arbitrator's decision was clearly repugnant to the National Labor Relations Act.

In this case, Verizon New England argued the arbitrator's ruling — that signs in parked cars constituted picketing — was based on a reasonable interpretation of prior NLRB rulings, particularly recent rulings made by a majority Republican board. But the current NLRB dismissed that March 9, writing that the order to remove the signs was "clearly repugnant" to the NLRA.

"This is not a huge change, but it is a part of a trend," Aubrey said.

Last year, for example, the NLRB announced new rules that should result in fewer discrimination cases being deferred to contractual grievance and arbitration processes. But the board has not expanded that heightened review to all arbitration decisions.


"The board is in flux about when it defers and when it steps in. It has made changes for some kinds of cases, but not for cases like this one," Aubrey said. "I hope this was a signal that the board will answer the important questions about workers' freedoms and not leave them to private arbitrators."

Verizon filed an appeal in federal court April 21. Hearings have not been scheduled, but Rowley is adamant that the IBEW will fight Verizon.

"What the court will do only time will tell, but we will continue to fight," Rowley said. "The lesson is that the board may be slow and it may be frustrating, but persistence and consistency make a difference for our members, and workers everywhere."


'This is a huge win and it could not have come at a better time.'

– Local 2324 Business Manager John Rowley