Federal law protects the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers, more commonly known as unionizing. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) outlines these rights and prohibits employers from interfering with employees engaging in protected activities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigates alleged violations of workers’ rights and, in some cases, pursues legal claims on behalf of aggrieved workers. Throughout 2017, employees of Tesla, a Northern California technology company that designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars, have been involved in efforts to form a union. Multiple workers filed complaints with the NLRB. In August, the NLRB consolidated five of these California employment cases into a single complaint, which alleges various acts of coercion and restraint against employees involved in union organizing. Tesla, Inc. and Sanchez, et al., Nos. 32-CA-197020, 197058, 197091, 197197, 200530, cons. complaint (NLRB Reg. 32, Aug, 31, 2017).
The NLRA provides broad protections for employees’ “right to self-organization,” which includes “form[ing], join[ing], or assist[ing] labor organizations.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. It also protects employees’ “right to refrain from any or all of such activities” if they choose. Id. The statute prohibits “unfair labor practices,” including any “interfere[nce] with, restrain[t], or coerc[ion of] employees” in relation to their rights. Id. at § 158(a)(1). Unions are subject to similar prohibitions against coercing or restraining employees, such as in situations regarding their right not to participate in protected activities.
A recurring dispute with regard to unions involves the question of whether employees who do not wish to join a union may still be required to pay fees to unions that represent them. Some states allow employees to opt out of union membership through “right to work” laws. California is not a “right to work” state. Opponents of right to work laws note that collective bargaining agreements usually apply to all employees, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members of the union. Supporters tend to argue that employees should have the choice of whether to join and pay fees to a union.
Workers at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California have been involved in union organizing efforts since at least late 2016. In July, a group of employees known as the “Tesla Organizing Workers’ Committee” sent a letter to the board of directors, requesting greater transparency regarding safety and financial issues. During this time period, multiple employees and former employees filed complaints with the NLRB, alleging that the company attempted to interfere with union organizing activities, such as by allegedly preventing organizers from handing out information during non-work hours, either by physically obstructing them or by threatening to fire them. The company has denied all allegations.
A consolidated complaint filed by the NLRB on August 31, 2017 combines five complaints filed between April and July. The complaint describes multiple instances, beginning in October 2016, in which security personnel employed by Tesla allegedly interfered with “off-duty employees who were engaged in leafleting on Respondent’s premises outside of Respondent’s Facility.” Tesla, cons. complaint at 5. It also alleges several instances in which executives or supervisors “attempted to prohibit an employee from discussing safety concerns with other employees and/or with the Union.” Id. at 7.
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