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Labor: 6th circuit upholds NLRB’s Specialty Healthcare “Micro-Union” Decision

Many employers feel the decision makes it easier for unions to dictate the group of employees they wish to organize.

The 6th Circuit recently upheld the National Labor Review Board’s (NLRB) controversial 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision which many employers feel will promote “micro-unions” in the workplace and make it easier for unions to dictate the group of employees they wish to organize.

Specialty Healthcare involved a union petitioned-for unit consisting of only certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and excluding other non-supervisory service and maintenance employees such as resident activity assistants and cooks. For many years, the Board had applied the standard set forth in Park Manor Care Center on this issue, which considered whether the community of interest of the employees the employer sought to include in the petitioned-for unit was “sufficiently distinct from those of other employees” to justify excluding them from the bargaining unit. In Specialty Healthcare, the Board increased the burden on employers in these situations and held:

[I]n cases in which a party contends that a petitioned-for unit containing employees readily identifiable as a group who share a community of interest is nevertheless inappropriate because it does not contain additional employees, the burden is on the party so contending to demonstrate that the excluded employees share an overwhelming community of interest with the included employees.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge after the employer subsequently refused to bargain. After the employer was found to have violated the National Labor Relations Act, it petitioned for review of the NLRB’s determination that the bargaining unit of the CNAs was appropriate.

The 6th Circuit noted that the Board took an unusual interim step before deciding the substantive issue: It invited interested parties to weigh in regarding the potential impact if the Board overruled Park Manor. The Court also found that Specialty Healthcare was not a dramatic departure from prior Board decisions and was based “on some of the Board’s prior precedents.” Lastly, the Court observed that the National Labor Relations Act provides a statutory limit on the NLRB’s discretion to define collective bargaining units. It held however, that the NLRB did not cross the line in this respect simply because it applied the standard referenced above.

What does this mean for employers going forward? The new standard for evaluating whether it is necessary to expand a bargaining unit will be difficult for employers to surmount. Accordingly, unions will more readily win elections where they “pick and choose” the classification of employees allowed to vote.

Contributing Author

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John Kuenstler

John F. Kuenstler is a partner in the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP and a member of the Labor and Employment Department. Mr....

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