NLRB to rule on unions’ use of employee email accounts: ruling could cut both ways

Union organizers may be getting a new way to communicate with employees, at the cost of some of the confidentiality necessary for employees to feel safe in union activities.

Unions need ways to communicate with employees.  According to a ruling last week from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), union organizers might be getting a new way: email.  In 2007, the Republican-dominated NLRB ruled that employees could not use company-supplied email addresses.  In a reversal, last week, the NLRB issued a preliminary ruling suggesting that it may overturn that earlier decision.  [more below the fold]

As labor experts note, the ability to contact each other and communicate through university email accounts could very much affect the ability of adjuncts at private universities to continue to build on recent successes.  Not surprisingly, Forbes (ever that friend of the lowly worker) used only the most neutral language the headline above its reporting of the event, “NLRB Ruling Could Allow Unions to Usurp Company Email Account.”

In any case, this only applies to private employers, and so private universities.  Private universities are not required to recognize unions, although they may.

One might think having access to emails for union activities would be an unalloyed good for pro-union employees, but  I’m not so sure.  We should remember that employers have full access to employee emails.  It’s more likely than not that just about any administration would be hostile to unionization.   Often those who spearhead unionization efforts are among universities’ most tenuous employees: full-time and part-time non-tenure track faculty.  For many of these faculty members, even just receiving an email from a union organizer might seem like a threat to their jobs.  In our union effort at BGSU my fine university, we encouraged everyone to get a non-BGSU mfu email account that we use for any sort of union business, both so that the administration didn’t know who we were (although they had a mostly good sense) and so that way we could have conversations about strategy without being worried about the administration’s prying eyes.

It can’t hurt for employees to have access to their email accounts for union business.  But union sympathizers must be careful in how they use their university emails, no matter what happens in this ruling.


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