Legal experts, labor leaders decry e-mail ruling

A recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that lets employers block employees from using company e-mail for "non-job-related solicitations" flies in the face of a labor law meant to protect democracy in the workplace, some professors argue.

The decision arose after an employee at The Register-Guard, a daily newspaper in Eugene, Ore., received written warnings for sending numerous union-related e-mails. The employer prohibits the use of the company e-mail "to solicit or proselytize for commercial ventures, religious or political causes, outside organizations, or other non-job-related solicitations."

Subsequently, charges of unfair labor practices were filed by the Eugene chapter of the Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America. The chapter represents about 150 employees within the newspaper's parent company, Guard Publishing. The complaint alleged that the employer's policy was unlawful.

On Friday, Dec. 21 the board announced it had ruled that Guard Publishing did not violate national labor law by banning the union solicitations. The board found no basis "to refrain from applying the settled principle that, absent discrimination, employees have no statutory right to use an employer's equipment or media for [unionizing] communications."

Saint Louis University law professor Matt Bodie predicts that as a result of the finding, instead of banning all personal communications, employers worried about unionization now simply will ban all e-mails related to unions.

Based on the decision, the employment law firm Jackson Lewis advised employers to consider revising handbooks and policy manuals. "For the first time, with some assurance, employers can promulgate a policy lawfully prohibiting personal use of e-mail systems, at least to the extent enforcement is possible," the firm said.

New York Law School professor Carlin Meyer said the board's finding contradicts the labor act, which was supposed to guarantee a fair shot at unionizing. "This is one more decision that tilts against that goal and creates even more employer-dominant workplaces," Meyer said.

Bodie added, "This seems to eliminate the protections that the [labor act] generally has for collective activity."

Many employers try to restrict e-mail use to only work activities in order to prevent employees from accessing game, shopping and porn sites, as well as to prevent union solicitations, Meyer said. The board's finding will make it less complicated to target union solicitations, he noted. It is "easier to scan for the word 'union' than to cover all the things one might shop for."

Labor officials also criticized the ruling.

Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union, said that permitting employers to discriminate against union-related communication in emails "caps off a season of bad, anti-worker rulings by the NRLB. Even on their way out the door, the Bush team is intent on allowing big corporations to deny workers the freedom to unite together to improve their jobs and the services they provide."

He added, "This ruling is more proof that we need a new president, Congress and labor board who will represent America's hardworking, taxpaying men and women, and not just corporate special interests."

Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, CWA, said the finding is "particularly galling because this is a newspaper. It's censorship -- pure and simple. It's censorship of the worst kind."

Newspaper officials were not available for comment.

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