The National Labor Relations Board made a landmark decision recently, when it ruled that employees have the right to use their employer’s email system to send communications regarding union organizing.
The decision came in response to a matter involving Purple Communications of Rocklin, California. Company policy forbade employees from using the email system for “activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation” with Purple Communications.
A union was attempting to organize certain employees within Purple Communications. They filed a protest over election results at a couple of the company’s worksites because the restrictive email policy prevented employees from freely conversing about the election. Union organizers also filed a complaint of unfair labor practices because employees were being restricted from engaging in a legally protected activity. An administrative law judge initially found in favor of Purple Communications, but the union organizers decided to appeal that decision.
The board reversed its decision, finding that employees who have already been granted access to a workplace email system do have the right to use that system for protected communications relating to matters about working conditions and union organizing as long as such communications were made during non-working hours. Nonetheless, companies may still have the right to restrict such emails if they can show that such a ban is necessary for disciplinary reasons or to maintain production activities.
Holding that communication is a basic building block of legal organization efforts, the board effectively reversed earlier decisions. Members of the board agreed that email is ubiquitous in the modern workplace and that it is essentially a “gathering place” for employees to discuss their rights and working conditions.
The board notes that employers still maintain the right to monitor emails to meet management objectives. Moreover, the ruling does not apply to employees who do not ordinarily have access to the company’s email system or to third parties, like union organizers, who request such access. This new decision may make it necessary for employers to make amendments to existing email policies so as not to run afoul of this new precedent.
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