If there were a State of the “Unions” report, it would no doubt highlight unusual protests, increased organizing and widespread strikes in 2018, along with a forecast for a labor board likely to give more latitude to employers in 2019.

Groups of employees protesting against the actions of their employers are not unusual. However, two protests by groups of Washington, DC employees in 2018 were extraordinary. The NLRB Professionals Association, representing career staff NLRB employees, picketed speeches made by the NLRB Chairman and the NLRB General Counsel. According to their leaflets, they criticized the NLRB’s “systematic attacks on the employees . . . and the agency (NLRB) as a whole.” They further expressed concern regarding their upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, which they anticipated would include NLRB management’s demands to reduce compensation, benefits and job protections. The second unusual group of protesting employees was represented by the Office of Professional Employees International Union. They picketed their employer, the AFL-CIO, which found itself in the ironic position of being an employer opposing the concerns by its own employees over matters including job security and increased economic benefits.

In spite of Republican domination of the federal executive, legislative and administrative branches of government, union organizing and strike activity increased in 2018. Unions continued to target jobs that cannot be “exported,” such as those in the healthcare and hospitality industries. For example, approximately 6,000 employees represented by UNITE HERE struck 26 Chicago hotels and gained pay and benefit increases, including the continuation of health insurance benefits even when employees are laid off during annual cyclical business downtimes. Approximately 7,700 UNITE HERE members struck an international hotel company nationwide. These strikes are the tip of the resurgent strike activity iceberg. In 2017, only seven strikes involved more than one thousand employees each. In 2018, more than 20,000 teachers struck in West Virginia; more than 20,000 teachers struck in Oklahoma; more than 40,000 teachers struck in Arizona; and other large teacher strikes occurred in Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina. More than 15,000 patient care workers struck University of California medical centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Davis, and Irvine, plus approximately 24,000 members of other unions supported these strikes by also refusing to work (sympathy strikes). Finally, approximately 20,000 employees of an international internet company engaged in a one-day strike to bring public attention to their dissatisfaction with the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against managers.

UNITE HERE focused attention on “go green” environmental initiatives, such as offering points or enhanced rewards programs to encourage guests not to change linen and towels every day. UNITE HERE alleged that these environmental actions resulted in, and were possibly intended to, reduce the number of its members who are housekeepers. That UNITE HERE position is ironically adverse to environmental groups, some of which were allies with unions in corporate campaigns.

UNITE HERE also claimed that the increased use of robots minimizes the work typically performed by its members: housekeepers who clean rooms, food service employees who prepare and deliver room service meals, performed laundry services employees, and front desk employees who are replaced by smartphone facial recognition for check-in. Additionally, UNITE HERE claimed that the proliferation of ride-sharing services had caused a reduction in the tips formerly received by front door employees for hailing a taxi cab, and that food delivery companies also have reduced the work of hotel food service employees who prepare and deliver room service meals.

Ironic developments in labor-management relations continue in 2019. The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) is responsible for enforcing the rights of approximately 2.1 million non-postal federal government employees to unionize. The FLRA Chairwoman recently announced FLRA would no longer recognize or negotiate with the union of Authority Employees, which has represented FLRA employees for decades. Ironically, most of the FLRA employees are lawyers who file legal challenges on behalf of other federal government employees against their federal government agency employers.

In 2019, the pendulum is already swinging toward more employer-friendly positions, with the NLRB General Counsel issuing directives that announce the return to prior precedent. For example, the NLRB will allow an unfair labor practice charge to be deferred to arbitration. If the NLRB determines that the arbitrator did not decide an employee’s legal rights, then the unfair labor practice charge may proceed. The General Counsel also announced his desire to identify a case to litigate that a union’s use of “Scabby,” the inflatable rat balloon, is illegal and prevent it from being used in a strike or picketing. John Ring, the new chair of the NLRB has placed renewed emphasis on the agency’s rule-making authority, exercised only rarely since the agency was founded in the 1930s. The agency issued a proposed rule in 2018 clarifying its standard on joint employment and has indicated it will release another proposed rule modifying union election procedures. Ring’s public comments suggest more practices may be the subject of rule-making in the coming year. In addition, the NLRB issued its Strategic Plan for 2019-2022 in December. Among the highlights, the agency’s goal is for an annual, agency-wide 5% reduction each year in case processing time for unfair labor practice charges.

For more information on developments with the NLRB, stay tuned to Akerman’s HR Defense Blog.