NLRB Says Organizer Access to Public Spaces is Not on the Menu

By John Alan Doran

Over thirty-five years ago, the NLRB held that an employer may not prohibit a union organizer’s access to an employer’s privately owned, but publicly accessible areas, such as an employer’s public restaurant or cafeteria, unless the organizer engages in “disruptive” conduct.  A long line of subsequent Board decisions confirmed this rule.  However, last Friday, the Board unequivocally reversed a slew of its prior decisions on this issue in UPMC, 368 NLRB No. 2 (06-CA-102465, June 14, 2019).

UPMC is a hospital facility that provides a publicly accessible cafeteria.  Union organizers held a peaceful lunch meeting with some UPMC employees in the cafeteria.  When UPMC Security learned of this, they called the police and had the organizers removed.  The union filed unfair labor practice charges, and an Administrative Law Judge found in favor of the union. 

On appeal, the Board reversed the ALJ’s decision.  The Board reviewed a long line of federal circuit court decisions resoundingly criticizing the Board’s historical approach to organizer access to public spaces, and noted that the Board’s long-standing position directly contravened existing Supreme Court jurisprudence.  The Board concluded that organizer access to privately owned, public spaces is governed by the Supreme Court’s decision in NLRB v. Babcock & Wilcox Co., 351 U.S. 105 (1965), which held that an employer may lawfully exclude union organizers from its property, except in the very rare instances where either the union has no other reasonable means to communicate with employees or where the employer discriminates against the union by allowing solicitation or distribution by others but not the union.  Applying Babcock & Wilcox to these facts, the NLRB held that the employer did not violate the Act by removing the organizers because they were engaged in distribution and solicitation and the employer had consistently excluded other patrons who engaged in such activities for non-union purposes.

While the UPMC decision noted that the ruling should not impact existing employer no-distribution/no-solicitation rules, it likely does impact the application of existing employer rules for employers that have publicly accessible areas on their private property.  Regardless, this landmark ruling should prompt all employers to revisit both the language and the enforcement of their no-distribution/no-solicitation rules to ensure that they are legal, robust, up to date, and consistently enforced.  Employers are also wise to note that they may not exclude union organizers from public areas merely because they are organizers—it is the conduct of soliciting or distributing that supports their exclusion, not their mere affiliation with a union.