Can Independent Contractors Form Unions? Seattle Wants to Allow It.

space-needle-independent contrcator drivers seattle uber lyft seattle law ordinanceA legal battle in Seattle (“The Battle of Seattle!”) may soon determine whether independent contractor drivers can form unions. In 2015, the city passed a law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to organize. The mayor allowed the law to go into effect but didn’t sign it because he was concerned it would spawn expensive litigation. He was right.

This month, a federal judge handed the City a victory, dismissing a lawsuit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had argued that the ordinance was illegal. The decision is certainly not the last word on the subject, since the Chamber will appeal and there is a companion lawsuit still pending anyway.

The issues go beyond the basic question of whether independent contractors can form unions.

Generally, they cannot. Independent contractors are separate businesses. Antitrust law generally forbids businesses from banding together and collectively fixing prices and other conditions. You know the drill: Collusion bad, free market good.

The judge ruled that the circumstances here, however, are different than usual. First, it’s worth noting that the “unions” aren’t really unions (despite being overseen by the Teamsters), since unions are for employees and these are representation associations. That seems like word play to me, but everyone’s being careful not to call these things “unions.”

Second, the situation here is not merely that independent contractors are banding together to fix prices. Rather, a local law has established a procedure for ride hailing drivers to collectively share information in a particular format and setting, then negotiate collectively in a government-approved manner. The law enables the activity, not the drivers.

Ok, but what about the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? Only employees can unionize, right? Well, sort of. The NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.  But, then again, the NLRA definitely does not apply to independent contractors.

So what does that mean? Does the NLRA preempt laws that would allow non-employees to unionize (as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued)? Or does the NLRA’s inapplicability to contractors mean that Congress was indifferent (and silent) as to whether independent contractors could organize? The judge went with Door #2, deciding that the NLRA did not pre-empt the City of Seattle from enacting this ordinance.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Seattle ordinance did not violate any federal or state laws.

This is a case to watch. If Seattle ultimately succeeds in setting up a way for independent contractors to band together and collectively bargain, the gig economy could be changed fundamentally. Other cities would be sure to follow suit and pass similar laws.

A lot still needs to be sorted out, and this is a case that could eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. An ordinance like this poses a challenge to the scope of federal authority over labor law and antitrust law, both of which are areas where a uniform national policy has generally been considered important to maintain.

Keep an eye on this one. We’ll see if Seattle can hold onto the ball this time, or if the city again throws an errant pass to a wide-eyed Malcolm Butler hiding in the end zone. [Seahawks fans are advised not to click on this link.]

///Update 9/11/17: In early September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals placed this ordinance on hold, while the case is on appeal. That means the ordinance is not currently in effect, and  independent drivers cannot currently organize under this law. A final decision is expected sometime in 2018.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Appeals Court Slams NLRB Joint Employer Finding in Landmark CNN Case, But Ruling May Prove Hollow

NLRB CNN joint employment Browning-Ferris overrule Second Circuit Court of Appeals IMG_1094A federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the NLRB cannot abruptly change its definition of joint employment without sufficient explanation. This decision (the CNN case) rebukes the NLRB for its initial attempt, in 2014, to expand the definition of joint employment.

This decision does not, however, address the Browning-Ferris case that followed in 2015, in which the Board similarly expanded the definition of joint employment but, that time, with an expansive explanation and justification for doing so. Browning-Ferris in on appeal too.

Here’s what happened.

Back in the good old days, when TV was pure and the world had not yet been exposed to Janet Jackson’s halftime nipple, CNN used to contract with an outside company who supplied technicians for its TV production. CNN’s camera operators, sound technicians, and broadcast engineers were employees of a third party, and they were represented by a union.

In late 2003, just a few months before that fateful Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, CNN decided to bring that work in house. It set up a hiring and interview process and then directly hired its own technicians, severing its ties with the third party.

That made the union mad.

The union claimed the decision was motivated by anti-union animus and filed an unfair labor practice charge. The NLRB ultimately agreed with the union, determined that CNN was a joint employer of the third party technicians, and therefore had to respect the union status of the technicians. CNN could not hit the reset button without bargaining.

There was more to the decision too, with findings of anti-union statements by supervisors and a question about whether CNN was a successor employer (which is not the same thing as being a joint employer), but for our purposes, let’s focus on the joint employment piece.

Before the Board’s CNN decision, the legal standard for joint employment under the NLRB (remember, different laws have different standards) required “direct and immediate control.” In the CNN decision, the Board inexplicably abandoned that standard and ruled that two separate entities are joint employers of a single workforce if they “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”

“Share or codetermine” is much looser than “direct and immediate control.” Think of your teenage children. You may try to “share and codetermine” whether they have a party at your house when you are out of town on business, but you have no “direct and immediate control” over the matter. At least not while it happens. (Purely hypothetical. My kids didn’t do this. Kids, if you are reading, DON’T do this!)

This case has been crawling through the courts for years, but finally last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NLRB could not simply switch the test without explaining itself. On that basis alone, the Court rejected the conclusion that CNN was a joint employer of the third party technicians.

So what does this mean for Browning-Ferris and the vastly expanded definition of joint employment that the Board instituted in that case?  Unfortunately, nothing.

In contrast to the CNN case, the Board’s Browning-Ferris decision included a lengthy and expansive discussion of the joint employer standard and why the Board — like in Sympathy for the Devil, “saw it was a time for a change.”

The Browning-Ferris case is also on appeal in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the same appellate court that just issued this decision) but will be heard by a different panel of three judges. A decision in that case is expected in the next several months.

For now, the Browning-Ferris standard — that indirect control is enough to demonstrate joint employment — remains the standard used by the NLRB.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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New NLRB Nominations May Lead to New Joint Employment Test (or to my misuse of Lynyrd Skynyrd song lyrics)

IMG_1088In the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Gimme Three Steps,” we find our hero cutting a rug down at a place called The Jug with a girl named Linda Lou. This catchy song has nothing to do with labor law but does deal with someone who finds himself in a bad situation (shakin’ like a leaf on a tree!) and needs three steps to get out the back door.

Same thing here (in a sense). [C’mon, work with me here, I’m trying to make NLRB appointments interesting!]. When not posting tweets of himself pummeling a photoshopped CNN logo outside a WWE ring, President Trump found the time to make two important nominations to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), giving companies two of the three steps needed to undo a long list of anti-business decisions from the past eight years.

The two new appointmnents, once confirmed, will shift the Board back to a 3-2 Republican majority, which should spell relief for businesses in several areas — including joint employment. (Two appointments = two steps. There’s a third step coming.  Wait for it….)

Nominee William Emanuel is a long-time employment defense lawyer who has made a career out of representing companies in labor disputes.

Nominee Marvin Kaplan is currently counsel to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent federal agency that rules on disputes over OSHA citations. He has served nearly a decade in various federal roles, including as Bush 43’s assistant secretary of labor for administration and management at the DOL.

Once confirmed, Emanuel and Kaplan will join current members Philip Miscimarra (R), Mark Gaston Pierce (D), and Lauren McFerran (D).

The rightward shift in the Board will likely bring relief to employers on a number of important labor issues, including the test for joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The Board’s landmark 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris (currently under appeal) redefined the test for joint employment, deeming workers to be joint employees under federal labor law even when a company exercises only minimal and indirect control over their working conditions. The reconstituted Board is likely to revert back to the prior joint employment standard, which required more direct control over how, when, and where work was performed before a company could be deemed a joint employer. (Of course, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals may take care of that itself by reversing the Browning-Ferris decision on appeal. A decision is expected before the end of the year.)

Meanwhile, one significant hurdle remains.  (As promised, loyal reader, here’s the third step.) The term of the NLRB’s General Counsel, Richard Griffin, does not expire until November 2017. As General Counsel, Griffin acts as the NLRB’s Chief Prosecutor. When his term expires, the appointment of a new General Counsel with a more pro-business outlook is expected.

The combination of two appointments to make a more pro-business Board, plus a more pro-business General Counsel, should finally bring relief to employers who have been battered by eight years of anti-business interpretations on issues like union elections, handbook policies, and social media. These rulings have been applied to union and non-union businesses, and so a more pro-business Board will be a welcome change to the business community.

Of course, it will take time for businesses to see the effects of a new Board and, later, a new General Counsel. The right cases and circumstances will need to arise, and then more pro-business interpretations can be issued. I blogged about this topic here a few few months ago, before we knew who the two new NLRB nominees would be. With the President’s two June 2017 nominations, we are two steps closer to these changes taking full effect.  (“That’s the break I was looking for.”)

Thank you, Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins, for helping me to try to make this blog post interesting and, most of all, for naming your band after a gym teacher.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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D.C. Court Doesn’t Fall for NLRB’s Lollipop Trick, Deems FedEx Drivers Independent Contractors

img_1042Act I, Scene 1

Location: Anywhere, USA

Boy: Can I have a red lollipop?

Mom: No, we’re eating dinner in half an hour.

Boy: (eats blue lollipop)

Mom: What are you doing? I said no!

Boy: I only asked about the red lollipop.

Too cute by half, right? Mom is no fool and easily sees through the simple trick. The boy is grounded.

Act I, Scene 2

Location:  D.C. Court of Appeals

NLRB: These FedEx drivers in Massachusetts are employees, not independent contractors.

D.C. Circuit (2009): No, they’re independent contractors.

NLRB: Ok, Connecticut then. The FedEx drivers in Connecticut are employees, not independent contractors.

D.C. Circuit (2017): Are you kidding me? We already ruled they are independent contractors.

NLRB: Last time I only asked about the drivers in Massachusetts.

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