If you’re in the midst of unionizing your workplace, it might seem obvious to you that it’s unwise to organize your coworkers over company email or Slack. Still, it was a protected right workers had. But in a blow to workers, employers can now legally ban company email use for organizing altogether.
On Tuesday, Trump’s National Labor Review Board (NLRB) voted in a 3-1 decision to overturn an Obama-era ruling known as Purple Communications that permitted workers to use company email to discuss union and other non-work related matters. The ruling, issued Tuesday, states employees “do not have a statutory right to use employers’ email and other information-technology resources to engage in non-work-related communications.”
In other words, your boss can now ban you from organizing your colleagues not only over your work email, but also work-operated Slack channels and computers or phones purchased by your employer for work use.
Issued in favor of Caesars Entertainment in a dispute between the company and its union, the ruling’s definition of “non-work communications” remains vague and could be interpreted broadly to punish workers for all sorts of communications. Already, employers are charged with firing workers in nearly 20 percent of all union elections.
“Employers have the right to control the use of their equipment, including their email and other IT systems, and they may lawfully exercise that right to restrict the uses to which those systems are put, provided that in doing so, they do not discriminate” against union related activities, the Republican-majority board wrote.
In an increasingly disjointed modern workplace where gig work and remote offices have become the norm, the implications are potentially vast and terrifying. Often workers’ only means of socializing and discussing working conditions are on digital platforms like email and Slack.
The decision is the latest move by Trump’s anti-union NLRB to erode workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, a right that has been protected under the National Labor Relations Act since 1935. Among the many blows dealt to workers under Trump’s watch, the NLRB has ruled that graduate students and Uber drivers do not have the right to form unions and has restricted the definition of “joint employer,” making it hard for contracted workers to bargain with the companies that dictate their wages and working conditions.
In a moment of heightened labor militancy in the tech industry, Silicon Valley bosses will likely be pleased with the ruling. In fact, following a 20,000-worker walkout over the Google’s handling of sexual harassment in 2018, the Google pressed the NLRB to limit workers' rights to organize using company email. Leaders of the walkout, who organized workers at Google offices from London to New York to San Francisco, relied on company email and internal message boards to plan the event. Without Google infrastructure, the walkout would undoubtedly have had a lower turnout and in turn less negative publicity.
Rebecca Rivers, one of five Google engineers fired within the past 30 days for activities related to labor organizing, told Motherboard earlier this month that a lot of worker-organizing at Google has taken place on company group chats and email threads, but recently workers have become more cautious about the platforms they use. “Because of all the retaliation, we’ve started to have more and more conversation off of Google infrastructure. We’re not even using personal gmail accounts because we’re that terrified of Google spying on us.”
If a Democrat takes office in 2020, this week’s ruling would likely be struck down by an NLRB favorable to workers. In the meantime, it’s probably smartest for workers to stick to real life conservations and non-company emails, devices, and secure platforms, when planning their next walkout.