The fight between Hearst Magazines and hundreds of staffers attempting to unionize is becoming messier by the day.
In the latest twist to the ongoing saga, Hearst executives have accused a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal body, of subverting the board’s own rules, according to a number of legal filings.
In the filings, Hearst claims that dozens of members of the proposed bargaining unit are actually supervisors who shouldn’t be part of the union and is arguing that disputes over those employees should be resolved before staff can formally vote to unionize.
But a regional director for the NLRB, who gets to decide when an election happens since Hearst did not voluntarily recognize the union, ruled that the agency will defer litigation of whether some staffers should be in the union until after a vote.
However, the NLRB’s board made a number of changes to its policies mid-December, including that such disputes concerning supervisory status should be addressed and resolved before an election. Those rules go into effect mid-April.
Hearst Magazines jumped on this switch, requesting that an election be deferred. But the regional director declined to budge, so Hearst has urged the NLRB to review the decision.
“This decision will remove any possibility of a fair election, will deprive the parties of any opportunity to fully debate prior to an election, and will plague the process with inefficiencies, uncertainty and lack of finality,” it said in filings late December.
In an emailed statement to WWD, a spokeswoman for Hearst Magazines, added: “The NLRB should determine who is eligible to vote before any election. That is the only fair process. In fact, the NLRB made that rule to ensure fairness just last month.”
The union was expecting the election to take place in early January, according to its web site, but this could delay the process. It argued back Friday in a filing to the NLRB that the director’s ruling was within the scope of discretion under current NLRB rules.
A rep for the Hearst Union Organizing Committee said: “Hearst executives have invested in high priced attorneys to make arguments that seek to unnecessarily divide employees. There’s nothing standard about what Hearst is doing. This decision is short sighted and way out of step with the current practice of other media companies.”
Parsing the status of employees in accordance with NLRB rules may sound technical, but the endeavor is part of a familiar playbook, according to labor experts.
Employers have long disputed the eligibility of proposed members before union elections, as it is generally seen as not just a way to limit the number of any unionized staff — one measure of employees’ bargaining leverage — but also to delay the election itself to sway its outcome.
“This is one of the most contentious aspects around the NLRB elections for years now — the determination of the appropriate bargaining unit,” said John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University, who chairs its department of labor and employment studies.
He explained that while the company might in good faith believe there’s a case to be made that these are genuinely supervisory employees, disputes over bargaining unit determination are one of the most common causes of delaying an election.
“Unions have claimed that some employers deliberately employ delays as a strategy to both extend the period during which they can conduct an antiunion campaign, and to take the momentum out of the union campaign,” he added.
In the case of Hearst, the numbers alone stand out. The employees’ proposed bargaining unit included roughly 550 Hearst staffers from 24 digital and print publications, and Hearst has previously argued that more than a third of them are supervisors who don’t qualify for union membership.
The dispute centers around some 92 members of the proposed unit, but the NLRB regional director presiding over the dispute has said that questions about the eligibility of most of them can be resolved after a union vote.
This particular debate is playing out at the same time that the Writers Guild Association, East, the body through which Hearst staffers are attempting to unionize, filed a separate unfair-labor-practice charge against Hearst executives with the NLRB.
As first reported by New York Magazine, the union accused executives of “unlawfully” engaging in surveillance of employees’ union activities and solicited, encouraged, and provided assistance to employees to withdraw union authorization cards, as well as other methods. The NLRB is investigating those claims.