Trade group sues to block U.S. labor board memo on anti-union meetings

The seal of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is seen at their headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The seal of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is seen at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 14, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo
  • Threats over 'captive audience' meetings violate employers' free speech rights, group says
  • Anti-union meetings have been legal for decades
  • Test case involving Amazon is pending

March 20 (Reuters) - A construction trade group has filed a lawsuit claiming a U.S. labor board's top prosecutor violated employers' constitutional rights by threatening legal action against businesses that require workers to attend meetings discouraging unionizing.

Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan (ABC) in a complaint filed in Grand Rapids, Michigan federal court on Friday said a 2022 memo by National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo improperly discourages employers from exercising their free speech rights.

Abruzzo, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden, in the memo said she would ask the five-member board to ban so-called "captive audience meetings." She said the meetings violate workers' rights to freely decide whether to join unions despite being routine for decades.

ABC in the lawsuit said the memo amounted to unlawful "prior restraint" of speech because it could deter employers from holding the meetings even though they are currently allowed under federal labor law. The group is seeking an order requiring Abruzzo to retract the memo.

ABC is represented by Chicago-based conservative legal group Liberty Justice Center and Michigan law firm Miller Johnson.

An NLRB spokeswoman declined to comment.

Abruzzo's office is facing similar claims in a pending lawsuit in Texas federal court by staffing firm Burnett Specialists.

In a motion to dismiss that case filed in October, the NLRB said Abruzzo's memo does not violate employers' free speech rights because it does not actually ban captive audience meetings - something only the board can do.

The NLRB in decisions dating back to the 1940s has said captive audience meetings are a valid exercise of employers' free-speech rights. Abruzzo in her memo said those decisions failed to balance those rights with the requirement that workers not be coerced into voting for or against unions.

In the first major test case, Abruzzo's office last May filed a complaint accusing Amazon.com Inc of violating labor law by holding captive audience meetings to discourage unionizing at a New York City warehouse.

An NLRB judge in January found that Amazon had illegally threatened to withhold raises and benefits if workers unionized, but he did not rule on the validity of the meetings. Amazon has appealed, teeing up the issue to be decided by the five-member labor board.

The case is Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan v. Abruzzo, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, No. 1:23-cv-00277.

For ABC: Keith Eastland of Miller Johnson; M. E. Buck Dougherty of Liberty Justice Center

For the NLRB: Not available

Read more:

U.S. labor board official wants to end mandatory anti-union meetings

Why the labor board wants to free 'captive' workers from bosses' messaging

Union-friendly changes in the works at U.S. labor board

Amazon's captive staff meetings on unions illegal, labor board official finds

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.