A Question of Property Rights: Unions and Workplace E-mail Systems

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - 9:30am

In Brief:

The Trump administration's appointees at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), should undo the Obama NLRB’s ruling permitting use of employer-owned e-mail systems for the purposes of union organizing.


The Obama NLRB granted organized labor’s long-held wish for greater access to non-unionized employees by opening workplace e-mail systems to union solicitations.

In Purple Communications, the Board overturned a workplace policy that prohibited employees from using their employer-provided e-mail system for non-work related messages.  The NLRB’s decision restricts employers’ rights to manage their own e-mail systems, and instead mandates that businesses allow e-mail to be used for union solicitations and other “concerted activity” so long as those communications take place during non-work time.

Prior to Purple Communications,  employers could prohibit off-duty employees from engaging in union organizing on the employer’s property and bar union literature distribution as long as the restrictions were (a) limited to work areas, (b) clearly explained to all employees and (c) applied to all off-duty employees equally, not just those engaged in union activity. Without question, workplace e-mail systems are the property of the employers who have invested time and capital in establishing and maintaining them.

However, with regard to e-mail, the Obama NLRB discarded this clear, neutral policy in favor of one that heavily favors unions.  It said that the old standard focused “too much on employers’ property rights and too little on the importance of email as a means of workplace communication [and] failed to adequately protect employees’ rights under the [National Labor Relations Act].”

In essence, the NLRB’s decision in Purple Communications effectively eviscerated employers’ control over their own e-mail systems and further disrupted the balance of our national labor policy and laws.

The Board should:

  • Overturn Purple Communications and allow employers’ to manage their own email systems.