Unions Leverage OSHA and other Dept. of Labor Enforcement as an Organizing Tactic

By Kara M. Maciel, Eric J. Conn & Lindsay A. DiSalvo

As the private sector continues to see a decline in labor union membership among employees, labor unions are struggling to remain relevant and recruit new, dues-paying members.  Traditionally, when a labor union begins an organizing campaign at a workplace, the federal agency at the center of the process is the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).  The NLRB’s purpose is to protect the rights of workers to organize and to freely choose whether or not to be represented by a labor union.  Indeed, the NLRB is an intrinsic part of the election process, and the NLRB may also become involved in a union organizing campaign if, for instance, the union asserts that the employer has committed an unfair labor practice.

However, unions are more and more often engaging with or depending on the regulations of other federal agencies as a tactic to gain leverage during organizing campaigns.  There are numerous ways a union may influence the outcome of an organizing campaign by using federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) or the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) of the Department of Labor (“DOL”), to persuade employees to embrace the union, or to put pressure on employers to concede to union representation.

Taking OSHA as an example, an on-site workplace safety inspection, or even just the threat of an inspection, can impact an organizing campaign in a manner favorable for the union.  The threat of making an OSHA complaint or inviting OSHA into the workplace to conduct an inspection can put pressure on an employer to stand-down against a union’s organizing efforts, even if it does not believe a particular violative condition or safety hazard exists.  A safety complaint could spark an OSHA inspection and, with 75% of all OSHA inspections resulting in the issuance of at least one citation, the chances are high that the employer would have an OSHA enforcement action on its hands. Continue reading

What Can Employers Do If OSHA Brings a Union Representative on an OSHA Inspection?

By Eric J. Conn

Employers need to be aware of a new possibility that union representatives may attempt to accompany OSHA compliance officers during workplace inspections, including at workplaces where the union has not been elected to represent the employees.

29 U.S.C. § 657(e) of the OSH Act authorizes a “representative of the employer and a representative authorized by [the employer’s] employees” to accompany the OSHA agent during an inspection of the workplace. The OSH Act specifies that the purpose of including these representatives is to help OSHA conduct an effective workplace safety inspection. However, OSHA’s implementing regulations, specifically 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8(c), require that the employees’ representative must himself be an employee of the employer, unless the individual participation is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace.” The regulation focuses on Union 1the third party’s technical expertise by listing “industrial hygienist [and] a safety engineer” as examples of non-employee representatives who may qualify under 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8(c).

On April 5, 2013, OSHA published a formal Interpretation Letter (dated February 21, 2013) ignoring the language of 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8(c) and expressly permitting employees at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement to designate a union representative as their personal representative during an OSHA inspection. The Interpretation Letter not only flies in the face of the plain meaning of 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8(c), but it also contradicts:

  • The OSH Review Commission’s Rules of Procedure;
  • the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA); and
  • OSHA’s Field Operations Manual (FOM).

Section 9 of the NLRA explains that only a union selected by a majority of employees for the purposes of collective bargaining can be considered an authorized employee representative. Continue reading