Labor Board Weighs Work E-Mail, Union Business

The National Labor Relations Board held a hearing Tuesday on whether employees may be reprimanded for using company e-mail accounts to conduct union business.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now on Wednesday we focus on the workplace, and today company e-mail. Some of the rules are pretty clear. You probably want to stay away from pornography, and you should know that it is legal for your company to read what you write. Things get a little murkier though when it comes to unions.

Here's a question: are unions allowed to use company e-mail to communicate with members? That was the question at a federal labor hearing yesterday at Washington, and NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: The case involved the Eugene Register Guard, an Oregon newspaper. And it began when the company reprimanded union members for sending union-related e-mails. The newspaper says it has a right to regulate the use of all its equipment, including telephones and the e-mail system.

That's the case it made before the National Labor Relations board yesterday. Afterwards, Michael Zinser, a lawyer for the newspaper, said the union could have contacted members by other means.

Mr. MICHAEL ZINSER (Attorney, Eugene Register Guard): Everybody has their own cell phone. Free e-mail addresses are available. You know, Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail. Certainly if the union wants to communicate with its members and employees, they're certainly free to get their personal e-mail addresses, personal cell phone numbers and communicate that way.

LANGFITT: But the company allowed workers to send e-mail for all kinds of personal use. From celebrating births to organizing poker games. And the paper's management sent e-mail to solicit on behalf of another outside organization, the United Way.

James Cappas(ph) is an attorney representing the union, the Newspaper Guild. He said the company violated workers' rights to act collectively, as protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Mr. JAMES CAPPAS (Attorney, Newspaper Guild): I think it's quite clear from the record that what we have here is a case where the employer chose to punish several employees for sending out irritating union-related e-mails. And then after the fact, slowly stumbled to a justification. These are employee communications, they're protected by the act. And all of the employers have to say back is it's our property.

LANGFITT: The Newspaper Guild says if it loses, it could make labor organizing tougher. There have been three other cases involving unions and e-mail. In all three, the board supported a union member's right to use company e-mail.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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