The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 gives certain employees the right to form a union and participate in “protected concerted activities.” The question is which employees have that right. NLRA Section 2 specifically prohibits supervisors from organizing, but an employee’s role is not always so clear-cut. As a result, many cases before courts or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) involve whether certain employees are supervisors, or part of another group exempt from NLRA protections.
Recently, in GGNSC Springfield v. NLRB, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that registered nurses were considered “supervisors” under the NLRA, and therefore had no right to organize.
The case involved 12 RNs, 10 licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and 46 certified nursing assistants (CNAs) at Golden Living Center, a nursing home in Springfield Tennessee. The nursing home had 100 employees and provided short and long-term care for 120 residents in two different wings of the facility. Two to six RNs and/or LPNs were assigned to a wing. Each RN reported to the director of nursing, who oversaw patient care along with two assistant directors.
In October 2011, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers sought to represent the Golden Living Center RNs in collective bargaining. The union petitioned the NLRB, but the Golden Living Center opposed the petition, claiming that the RNs were “supervisors” under the NLRA. After a hearing, the NLRB ruled in November 2011 that the RNs were not supervisors and certified them as a bargaining unit. The RNs held an election and elected the union as its bargaining representative.
However, the Golden Living Center refused to bargain with the union, and the union submitted a complaint to the NLRB that the nursing home had committed unfair labor practices. The NLRB sustained the complaint and ordered the Golden Living Center to bargain with the union. The Golden Living Center then appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
In determining whether the RNs were supervisors, the Sixth Circuit used a three-part test: (1) whether the RNs had the authority to engage in one of 12 listed supervisory functions; (2) whether the RNs used independent judgment when exercising authority; and (3) whether the authority they held was in the interest of their employer.
Specifically, the Sixth Circuit looked at whether the RNs had the authority to discipline. Under the three-part test, the Sixth Circuit found that the RNs had the authority to discipline, used independent judgment when they did so, and their authority was held in the interest of their employer. RNs at Golden Living Center followed a four-step disciplinary process. One “step” in the process was an employee memorandum; if an RN submitted a memorandum, that could lead to a write-up of the problem employee. The Sixth Circuit found that this authority to issue memoranda was an authority to discipline, and that determining whether to write the memoranda was an act of independent judgment. Therefore, the RNs were supervisors under the NLRA.
The decision is a significant setback for healthcare workers’ organizing efforts in Kentucky and other states in the Sixth Circuit. It is unknown whether the losing party will petition the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, if you belong to a union and have any other issues with collective bargaining, find an experienced Kentucky labor law attorney to help you with your needs.