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In victory for unions, NLRB grants workers right to organize via company email

December 11, 2014, 7:37 PM UTC
Businessman using computer mouse and typing on laptop
Photograph by Paul Bradbury — Getty Images/OJO Images RF

In a decision aimed at bringing labor law up to speed with workplace technology, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Thursday that workers can use an employer’s email system for union organization.

The NLRB’s ruling stemmed from a case that the Communications Workers of America union brought in 2012 after it came up short in its attempt to organize employees of Purple Communications Inc., in Rocklin, Calif., a company that provides interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing. The union argued that prohibiting Purple workers from using the company’s email system for non-business purposes and on behalf of organizations not associated with the company interfered with the CWA’s organizing efforts.

The company maintained that its email restrictions were aimed at cutting down on workplace distraction.

The CWA argued to the NLRB, a government agency that investigates unfair labor practices, that if an employer grants its workers access to a work email system, employees should be able to use it to discuss workplace issues, including those related to unionization.

In its ruling, the NLRB agreed with the CWA’s line of thinking. “Employee use of email for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time must presumptively be permitted by employers who have chosen to give employees access to their email systems,” the decision said. The three Democrats on the five-member board ruled in the workers’ favor; the two Republicans dissented.

At the crux of the case was a 2007 ruling by the NLRB that said workers do not have the right to use work email systems to communicate with one another about pay and workplace conditions. Thursday’s decision overturned the 2007 ruling, and the NLRB said that the earlier decision on this issue failed to protect workers’ right to organize and did not adequately consider the changing patterns of industrial life.