This case involves how to define a bargaining unit at a company. The United Steelworkers attempted to organize and represent a group of certified nursing assistants at a nursing home, while the employer contended that the appropriate unit includes all nonprofessional service and maintenance employees. The NLRB’s regional director ruled for the union. When issues like this are appealed, the NLRB decides them on a case-by-case basis, and it asked for input on how to determine the appropriate employees to include in each bargaining unit. In nursing homes and other nonacute health care facilities, the Board considers “community of interests” factors and background information about the workplace in determining the bargaining unit, and it asked for the views of interested parties on this question, not only for nursing homes but also for all industries. It planned to issue rules governing appropriate units via this litigation, rather than by a rulemaking process.
The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, of which the NAM is a member, filed an amicus brief March 8, 2011, focusing on the Board’s broader question of whether employees performing the “same job at a single facility is presumptively appropriate” as the bargaining unit. Our brief urged the Board not to tackle this question in the context of the nursing home case, but if it did, to continue to use the “community of interest” test that has guided employers and labor organizations for decades. If the Board were to adopt a standard that allows very small bargaining units, employers would be burdened with negotiating and administering a number of different contracts covering only a few of its employees. The Board should not attempt to establish a comprehensive approach to bargaining unit designations by adjudicating a nursing home dispute; rather, it should use the rulemaking process with public hearings.
In addition, the proliferation of units limits the rights of employees by creating barriers in the workplace, creating the risk of balkanizing the workforce and making employee advancement more difficult. A bargaining unit should include employees who have a community of interest that is sufficiently distinct from those excluded from the unit.
On August 30, 2011, the Board released a 3-1 ruling that the group of certified nursing assistants was the appropriate bargaining unit, and did not need to include all other nonprofessional service and maintenance employees of the workplace. It did so by applying a community-of-interest approach, adding that the burden is on the employer to prove that employees not included in the group seeking recognition "share an overwhelming community of interest with the included employees." This means that the factors used in determining whether members of groups share a community of interest must "overlap almost completely." The majority adopted this formulation to provide employers and employees with a clear standard to reduce litigation and produce more predictable and consistent results.
The National Labor Relations Act creates a set of presumptively appropriate bargaining units encompassing "the employer unit, craft unit, plant unit, or subdivision thereof." If the employees choose to define a bargaining unit in a way that is "appropriate," their decision will be upheld by the Board. This means that small bargaining units will be allowed as long as members in that unit share a community of interest, and the majority even stated that a unit is not "inappropriate simply because it is small."
NLRB Member Hayes dissented, arguing that the decision "fundamentally changes the standard for determining whether a petitioned-for unit is appropriate in any industry subject to the Board's jurisdiction," and warning about proliferation of bargaining units. He said that the majority's community-of-interest test effectively gives controlling weight to whatever unit a union has been able to organize. Rather, he would require a showing that a group's interests "are sufficiently distinct from those of other employees to warrant the establishment of a separate unit." Thus, the decision "encourages unions to engage in incremental organizing in the smallest units possible." He concluded by saying that the majority's opinion in this case and their proposed snap elections and limited Board review means that unions will organize in units as small as possible and it will be "virtually impossible for an employer to oppose the organizing effect either by campaign persuasion or through Board litigation."