NLRB to file complaint over reprimand for Reuters reporter’s tweet

New York Times
The National Labor Relations Board contends Reuters violated reporter Deborah Zabarenko‘s right to discuss working conditions when her supervisor reprimanded her for posting a message on Twitter that said, “One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild members.” A Guild release on the NLRB complaint is after the jump.

New York Guild release

Government to charge Thomson Reuters with multiple violations of federal labor law
NLRB complaint includes Twitter use, nixing bargaining rights

NEW YORK, April 6, 2011 – Federal authorities today confirmed that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will issue a complaint against Thomson Reuters Corp. (NYSE: TRI), charging the global news and information company with violating Federal labor law in connection with the negotiations between Thomson Reuters and the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents more than 420 Thomson Reuters employees. Thomson Reuters and the Guild are in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The NLRB advised the Guild and Thomson Reuters that it will charge Thomson Reuters with violating federal labor laws by illegally imposing harmful pay cuts on employees, who include print, video and photo journalists, technicians and administrative staff. The Guild estimates that those pay cuts amount to more than $2.4 million a year.

These sweeping pay cuts come after a highly profitable 2010 for Thomson Reuters, which claims on its website to “to do business in ways that respect, protect and benefit our customers, our employees, our communities, and our environment.” The family fortune of Thomson Reuters Chairman David Thomson, who controls the company, was just ranked by Forbes magazine as No. 1 in Canada and No. 17 in the world. The Thomson family’s net worth grew to more than $23 billion from $19 billion last year.

DISCIPLINED FOR TWITTER COMMENT
The NLRB complaint will also allege that Thomson Reuters’ Social Media policy violated Federal law by chilling employees’ ability to exercise their rights under Federal labor law, and that the Thomson Reuters’ policy was unlawfully applied in connection with a tweet sent by a Guild-represented journalist. The employee, a union activist, who was responding to a management solicitation on Twitter for employee opinions about the company, was verbally disciplined for posting that Thomson Reuters should “deal honestly with Guild members.” The NLRB said the company’s unilaterally imposed social media policy is illegal.

This appears to be the first time the NLRB will issue a complaint involving Twitter. Last fall, the NLRB filed a complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut for firing an employee who criticized the company on Facebook. In that case, the NLRB alleged that the firing was illegal because the employee’s online comments should be considered “protected concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act. That case was settled in February, 2011.

STRIPPING UNION OF BARGAINING RIGHTS
The NLRB further alleges that the company imposed a new set of rules that illegally strips the union of its right to bargain over wages on behalf of its members. It is the private sector equivalent of Wisconsin’s recent move to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights. A key difference, however, is that Thomson Reuters executives don’t get to rewrite the federal labor laws that cover private sector workers the way the governor and majority of the state’s legislature were able to rewrite laws covering Wisconsin state workers.

“The NLRB’s complaint affirms our belief that company negotiators weren’t dealing in good faith and weren’t respecting the rule of law,” said Guild President Bill O’Meara. “Our hope now is to move past the rancor and return to the bargaining table so we can give our members the certainty, security and respect they deserve.”

The NLRB’s move is an important step in the long-standing dispute between Thomson Reuters and the Guild. In November 2009, in a transparent attempt to financially cripple the union, Thomson Reuters stopped collecting union dues from Guild employees, a rarely used and highly aggressive labor relations tactic. In response, more than 90 percent of the Guild members at the company have continued to pay their dues voluntarily.

TRIAL PENDING FOR THOMSON REUTERS
The Guild was informed today that the NLRB notified Thomson Reuters of its intent to file the complaint in the very near future, unless the parties settle. The Guild does not anticipate that there will be a settlement which will forestall the issuance of the complaint.

The NLRB complaint, which is similar to an indictment, will pave the way for a trial before an administrative law judge. If the judge sustains the complaint and that decision is upheld on appeal, the company would be ordered to roll back its imposed work rules and repay employees the amount the NLRB found it illegally took.

The NLRB complaint will charge Thomson Reuters with violating federal labor law in the following ways:

Withholding requested information essential to good faith bargaining (Violations of Section 8(a)5 of the National Labor Relations Act).

Imposing pay and benefit cuts on employees when it was not permitted to do so because no lawful impasse existed (another Section 8(a)5 violation).

Illegally maintaining and applying to employees policies that restrict employees’ use of social media (including Twitter) in a manner that chills federally protected speech about working conditions (a violation of sections 8(a)1).

Applying the illegal social media policy to a Guild-represented employee’s tweets (another 8(a)1 violation).

Imposing a discretionary pay system that eliminates the union’s role in negotiating wages for its members (a violation of the NLRB’s McClatchy decisions).

The complaint follows a November 18, 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejecting Thomson Reuters’ attempt to block the Guild from using arbitration to resolve pending contract disputes. The ruling upheld a March 2010 lower court decision instructing Thomson Reuters to honor the arbitration provisions contained in its collective bargaining agreement. As a result, the Guild’s dispute over the company’s suspension of dues collection is now pending before an arbitrator.

The dispute with Thomson Reuters began on January 19, 2010, when management negotiators, instead of staying at the bargaining table to work out an equitable agreement, declared impasse and imposed work rules that cost each Guild-represented employee thousands of dollars per year, in some cases up to 10 percent of their income. The Guild alleged that the impasse was illegal under federal labor law and filed unfair labor practice charges against Thomson Reuters. While the Appeals Court ruling forced Thomson Reuters to accept arbitration, it did not resolve the company’s violations stemming from the January 2010 declaration of an impasse.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/cshunt312 Courtney Hunt

    I just published a blog post that referenced this piece. It’s entitled, “Is the NLRB Turning up the “Social Media Heat” too High? No… Not Yet” and can be accessed via

    http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsNLRBagenda

    Please feel free to add a comment there if you’re so inclined.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community
    Principal, Renaissance Strategic Solutions

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/cshunt312 Courtney Hunt

    I just published a blog post that referenced this piece. It’s entitled, “Is the NLRB Turning up the “Social Media Heat” too High? No… Not Yet” and can be accessed via

    http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsNLRBagenda

    Please feel free to add a comment there if you’re so inclined.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community
    Principal, Renaissance Strategic Solutions