Business-Only E-Mail Policies in the Labor Organizing Context: It Is Time to Recognize Employee and Employer Rights

By Weiner, Allegra Kirsten | Federal Communications Law Journal, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Business-Only E-Mail Policies in the Labor Organizing Context: It Is Time to Recognize Employee and Employer Rights


Weiner, Allegra Kirsten, Federal Communications Law Journal


I. INTRODUCTION

Technological advances are expanding the medium and increasing the speed of communication. Society is adapting and so must the law. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) reflects these changes in many aspects, including a section decreasing the time periods that banks are allowed to dishonor checks.(1) In the United States, Congress has enacted new laws that protect privacy of information in order to control the information that passes in the growing commercial market.(2) E-mail is now admissible as proof for employment discrimination(3) and defamation(4) cases. Congress adapted copyright laws to include information exchanged via e-mail and the Internet.(5) It only seems natural that labor law will acclimate to cyberspace along with the rest of society.

The effects of cyberspace in labor law are the most prevalent with union organizing activity. The use of an employer's e-mail system is a new, unique, and efficient tool that could enable labor organizers to reach a larger number of employees in a shorter amount of time. With the use of email and a list of e-mail addresses, a union officer could contact thousands of employees with one letter in a matter of seconds. Strikes could be announced at a moment's notice. Meetings could be scheduled, rescheduled, or even occur over e-mail. The organizers no longer have to leave their own offices to reach the workers. Access to employer e-mail systems would lift a boundary--that is, if the employees are granted use of the employer's e-mail system for protected concerted organizing activity.

The employees have a major hurdle before they can freely use company e-mail--it is the employer's e-mail system. The employer pays for the computers, programs, technical support staff, and the employee's time while the employee uses the system. So, in conjunction with organizing power, cyberspace extends the boundaries of employer property rights. Although it is crucial to allow employees the ability to organize, employer rights may not be unreasonably infringed. There must be a balance of employer's property fight interests with the employee's fights to organize.

Where does the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) fall on the issue of whether e-mail is the employer's tool or the employee's tool? The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has not had the opportunity to decide this issue. Hence, employers and employees are left wondering what uses of e-mail are permissible in the labor context. This is a very prevalent concern. Not only is e-mail becoming a common tool in the workplace, but it is also a very common tool in the organizing context. There are Web sites covering the Internet that link viewers to union literature, union official applications, and a list of union Web pages.(6)

This Note focuses on the next step the NLRB must take to bring labor law up to speed with technology. With guidance from the NLRA and previous NLRB and court decisions, this Note demonstrates that employer property interests in e-mail systems may not be ignored when dealing with e-mail in the labor organizing context. Due to the fact that the NLRB consistently has ruled that forms of employee written communication, labeled "distribution" in the organizing context, may be nondiscriminatorily limited with a showing of legitimate business; interests, employees' personal use of company e-mail systems may be prohibited. This is not a pro-employer or pro-employee position, just an efficient and effective solution. Both the employer and employee must sacrifice with a business-only e-mail policy but less rights overall will be infringed.

II. BACKGROUND

To understand the issues that arise when unions and employees have unlimited access to employer e-mail systems, it is important to grasp the purpose and substance of the NLRA. The NLRA's dominant purpose is to foster the "right of employees to organize for mutual aid without employer interference. …

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