Emplopyees Can Unite Via Workplace
Decades-Old Labor Act Offers Protections to Union Organizers,
Government Rules
By T. Shawn Taylor
Chicago Tribune    August 25, 2002

    While sending personal e-mails at work is generally regarded as a bad idea, if the e-mail message is related to union organizing or activity, it is probably protected by federal law.
    The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), applying tenets of the decades-old National Labor Relations Act to the computer age, has issued rulings that if employers permits other types of personal e-mail messages, then they cannot prohibit union-related notices.
    Though many employers have written rules warning against personal e-mail usage, these rules are rarely uniformly enforced, said Ellen Farrell, deputy associate general counsel for the NLRB in Washington.
    "Not only do employees use personal e-mail, managers and supervisors also use the e-mail for personal uses," Farrell said.  "If they don't enforce it against other kinds of personal use and they come down on someone who is sending out an e-mail about a union organizing meeting, the fact there's a written rule doesn't permit the employer to disparately enforce the fule."
    A Eugene, Ore., newspaper, the Register-Guard, issued a warning to an employee who is union president for sending union-related e-mails to co-workers.  The newspaper permits employees and managers to use e-mail to pass jokes, schedule personal lunch meetings and more.  An administrative law judge for the NLRB ruled in favor of the employee, Farrell said.
    The law also protects e-mail message involving other "concerted activities" by employees that are not union-related, such as sending e-mail message about poor working conditions or a difficult boss.
    For instance, the board ruled Cleveland-based Timekeeping Systems Inc., a maker of bar-code readers, violated the law when it fired a programmer for sending an e-mail message to co-workers blasting the company's new vacation policy.
    However, there are some aspects of the law that remain somewhat unsettled, Farrell said.  The board hasn't ruled whether the computer itself can be considered a workplace. That issue was raised in a 1998 case involving engineers of an aerospace company who remained at their computers during break time.  The general counsel's office took the position that their computers were their workplaces, but the case was settled before it reached the board, she said.
    Farrell said that employees should be mindful that the law applies only to e-mails sent during "non-work" time, though few of the cases that come before the board raise that issue.