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The National Labor Relations Board is trying to silence employer speech

Isaac Brekken/AP Images for NFL
Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy is pictured in this Dec. 5, 2019, file photo. The NLRB has accused Jassy of unfair labor practice for talking about Amazon employees’ quest to unionize.

Federal law gives businesses the right to share their views about unions to their employees, provided they make no threats or promises. Someone needs to tell that to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB recently filed a complaint against Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon, claiming a statement he made on CNBC constituted an unfair labor practice. When asked about the ongoing campaign to unionize Amazon, Jassy said:

“It’s employees’ choice whether or not they want to join a union. We happen to think they’re better off not doing so, for a couple of reasons at least. You know, first, at a place like Amazon that empowers employees, if they see something they can do better for customers or for themselves, they can go meet in a room, decide how [to] change it — and change it. That type of empowerment doesn’t happen when you have unions. It’s much more bureaucratic, it’s much slower. I also think people are better off having direct connections with their managers.”

None of that statement can be fairly read to imply a threat or promise. Instead, it makes clear that Jassy doesn’t believe Amazon’s employees need a union, and he thinks that unions create a more bureaucratic work environment. Nothing in this statement suggests a worker will be penalized for disagreeing, and no special favors are promised. This is precisely the kind of communication Section 8(c) of the National Relations Labor Act protects.

The NLRB’s complaint mentions a second interview, this one with Bloomberg, in which Jassy again acknowledged that, while the decision about whether to form a union belongs to the workers, “We happen to think they’re better off without a union.”

Jassy added, “We need to continue to provide the right benefits and we need to continue to work on safety, and that’s our intention.”   

Again, Jassy argues that he doesn’t think unionization would benefit Amazon’s workers. Nothing in this statement could be read as threatening workers, or as promising them benefits for choosing not to unionize. So, what’s going on here?

There appears to be a concerted effort by the NLRB to stifle employers’ free speech. Another example can be seen in the board’s recent attempts to restrict EMUs, or employer meetings on unionization. Since the 1940s, employers have had the right to hold mandatory meetings in which they communicate to employees their opinions about unionization. These meetings take place during work hours, meaning that employees get paid for attending. And of course, employers cannot threaten employees or make promises to them during these meetings. EMUs are simply meetings designed to ensure that workers hear both sides of the story, so they can make a knowing, voluntary decision about whether to unionize.

It turns out that employees like hearing both sides. A recent poll released by the Institute for the American Worker shows EMUs are popular, especially among union members themselves, with 59 percent of them holding a positive view. Despite this, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has recommended the board ban these meetings.  

Taken together, the recent campaign against Amazon and the attack on EMUs sends a clear message to employers: Only unions have the right to speak about unionization.

If the NLRB gets its way, it will chill employers’ free-speech rights. Some employers will decide that keeping silent is better than risking a charge of unfair labor practice, and never share their perspective with employees. Workers, in turn, will hear only what the union wants to tell them, without any balancing message. The board is supposed to be a neutral referee between management and labor but its recent policies clearly place a thumb on the scale in favor of Big Labor.

The National Labor Relations Board needs a course correction. It must get back to doing what is best for America’s workers, not what’s best for unions.

Steve Delie is the director of labor policy and Workers for Opportunity at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. 

Tags Amazon workers Andy Jassy free-speech rights National Labor Relations Board unionization

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