Labor Viscerality? Work Stoppages in the 'New Work,' Non-Union Economy
53 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2020 Last revised: 24 Mar 2021
Date Written: June 28, 2020
The COVID-19 work stoppages involving employees refusing to work because they are fearful of contracting coronavirus provides a dramatic opportunity for newer workplace law observers to grasp a well-established legal rule: both unionized and non-union employees possess rights to engage in work stoppages under the National Labor Relations Act. This article explains that employees engaging in concerted work stoppages, in good faith reaction to health and safety dangers, are prima facie protected from discharge. The article carefully distinguishes between Section 7 and Section 502 work stoppages. Crucially, and contrary to Section 502 work stoppages, the health and safety-related work stoppages of non-union employees, protected by Section 7, are not subject to an “objective reasonableness” test.
Having analyzed the general legal protection of non-union work stoppages, and noting that work stoppages have been on the increase during the last two years, the article considers when legal protection may be withdrawn from such concerted activities because employees repeatedly and unpredictably engage in them—so called “unprotected intermittent strikes.” Discussing a recent NLRB decision, the article argues for an explicit and strengthened presumption of work stoppage protection for employees who are wholly unaffiliated with a union, even when those employees engage in repeated work stoppages in response to discrete workplace disputes or dangers.
Next, the article grapples with looming work stoppage issues emerging from expansion of the Gig economy. When workers are not “employees,” peaceful work stoppages may become increasingly subject to federal court injunction. The Norris-LaGuardia Act (the venerable 1932 federal anti-injunction law) does not by its terms apply to non-employees, possibly including putative non-employee Gig workers, raising the specter of a new era of “Government by Injunction.” Under existing antitrust law, non-employee workers may be viewed as “independent businesspeople” colluding through work stoppages to “fix prices.” The article argues that First Amendment avoidance principles should guide Sherman Act interpretation when non-employee worker activity does not resemble price fixing; and that, consistent with liability principles articulated in the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Sessions v. Dimaya, antitrust law’s severe penalties should not be applied to Gig workers given the ambiguities in federal and state law employee definitions.
Finally, the article considers the potential for non-union private arbitration agreements exercising restraints on the NLRA rights of employees to engage in work stoppages in light of the Supreme Court’s labor law-diminishing opinion in Epic Systems.
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