BUSINESS
12/11/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2014

Your Boss Can't Stop You From Organizing A Union Over Work Email: Feds

Natalie Young via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- In a significant win for labor unions, federal regulators ruled Thursday that employers can't prevent their workers from using company email to organize and discuss their working conditions outside of work.

The decision issued by the National Labor Relations Board gives workers a statutory right to use work email systems for those purposes after hours, so long as they already have access to work email. The ruling overturns a Bush-era ruling by a more conservative labor board that said workers have no such right.

The outcome of the case, Purple Communications, Inc. and Communications Workers of America, is significant because it assures that pro-union employees can easily communicate with their colleagues about organizing. Aside from the right to pursue unionization, the ruling would also guarantee that workers can discuss basic things like pay and benefits via their work email without their bosses stopping them.

Employers had feared and probably expected just such a decision, considering the more liberal makeup of the NLRB in the Obama era. Board members called the decision "carefully limited."

In the case, Purple Communications, which develops communication services for deaf people, had maintained a policy stating that work email could be used for businesses purposes only. CWA, which lost a union election at the company in California, argued that the policy was too strict and infringed on workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law establishing collective bargaining rights.

The board's three liberal members said the earlier ruling issued in 2007 didn't take into account the role that email plays in modern life. The two conservative members dissented.

"By focusing too much on employers’ property rights and too little on the importance of email as a means of workplace communication, the Board failed to adequately protect employees’ rights under the Act and abdicated its responsibility 'to adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life,'" the majority wrote.

The ruling did, however, include two caveats. It limited the rights only to workers who otherwise have work email -- i.e., the ruling does not mean that companies have to give workers email access -- and it also carved out the possibly of "special circumstances" that would let an employer ban email use, when it was "necessary to maintain production or discipline."

Thursday's ruling was one in a batch expected to come down before the end of the year, when one current member's term will expire.

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