By Gerald T. Hathaway and Shavaun Adams Taylor

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued a refreshingly employer-friendly decision which allowed a successor company to implement new pay terms without having to first bargain with the labor union. In Paragon Systems, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 182 (2015), a divided three-member Board panel held that the new guard service, Paragon Systems, Inc. (Paragon), had given sufficient notice to employees of a change in pay and therefore could assert its right to unilaterally set the initial terms and conditions of employment when it assumed a federal contract from the predecessor employer, MVM, whose work force was represented by The Federal Contract Guards of America International Union.

A Successor Can Make Unilateral Changes

In 2011, the Board reinstated the “successor bar” doctrine, where a union is presumed to retain its majority status when the employees it represents are hired to work for a successor employer. UGL UNICCO Service Co., 357 NLRB 76 (2011). This decision overturned MV Transportation, 337 NLRB 770 (2002) in which the Bush Board had refused to impose a successor bar in favor of the employees’ right to free choice of a union representative. 

Paragon was deemed a successor because the majority of its work force was made up of former MVM guards. Paragon conceded that it was a successor and in fact, agreed to recognize and bargain with the union. However, without first consulting with the union, Paragon implemented employee pay terms that were different from what its predecessor had in place. Specifically, Paragon reduced the amount of paid “guard mount” time – time spent getting and returning weapons and ammunition – from 30 minutes to 10 minutes per day and discontinued paying for “guard mount” time on weekends.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Paragon which was dismissed by the Administrative Law Judge.

On appeal, the union and the NLRB’s general counsel argued that Paragon as a successor violated Section 8(a)(5) and (1) when it unilaterally made changes to the pay terms. In analyzing the case, the Board stated that “a ‘successor’ employer under NLRB v. Burns International Security Services, 406 U.S. 272 (1972), and Fall River Dyeing & Finishing Corp. v. NLRB, 482 U.S. 27 (1987), is free to set initial employment terms without first bargaining with an incumbent union, unless ‘it is perfectly clear that the new employer plans to retain all of the employees in the unit,’ in which case ‘it will be appropriate to have him initially consult with the employees’ bargaining representative before he fixes terms.’” Paragon Systems, Inc., 362 NLRB. No. 182, slip op. at p. 2 (quoting Burns at 294-295). The Board went on to state that “[o]nce a Burns successor has set initial terms and conditions of employment, however, a bargaining obligation attaches with respect to any subsequent changes to terms and conditions of employment.” Id. In other words, once the successor has established the initial terms, it cannot make any unilateral changes to employment terms without first bargaining with the union.

The Board held that it was undisputed that Paragon was a Burns successor and had properly implemented the initial terms and conditions of employment when it started operations. Accordingly, the Board held that Paragon did not violate the Act when it made unilateral changes to the pay terms that had been in place under the prior employer’s agreement.

Effective Notice to Employees Is Critical

The key issue in this decision was not whether the successor had the right to implement its initial terms and conditions upon becoming the new employer, but the sufficiency of the notice given to employees regarding the change in pay terms. The majority found that Paragon provided adequate notice to employees that there may be a change in such terms. Specifically, prior to taking over the contract, Paragon announced that it had the right to establish compensation, benefits and working conditions; its job applications specifically advised applicants that employees would have to conform to all Paragon policies and reiterated Paragon’s right to set compensation, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment; and Paragon specifically informed applicants that shift schedules would be set in accordance with the operational needs of the contract being serviced by Paragon.

Taken together, these statements were found by the Board to have made clear to employees that Paragon was not adopting MVM’s practice regarding paid guard mount time. Additionally, the implementation of these pay changes occurred on the first day that Paragon assumed operations. The Board majority concluded that the change in pay was within Paragon’s right to set initial terms and conditions of employment.

The sole dissenting Board member argued not that the successor was prohibited from setting the initial terms and conditions of employment, but that the implementation of this change was unlawful because Paragon had not provided specific notice of the specific change. The dissent noted that none of Paragon’s prior statements and communications to employees specifically addressed paid guard mount time.

Moreover, noted the dissent, even if Paragon’s general statements regarding its right to establish compensation, benefits and other working conditions were broad enough to cover the guard mount pay, the fact that Paragon provided detailed information in the contingent offer letter regarding many of the changes in wages and benefits, but was silent regarding guard mount time, reasonably conveyed to employees that no change would be made to such pay.

Practical Takeaways

This decision is good news for potential buyers of businesses, and other employers who are deemed to be successor employers of unionized operations having union contracts, because it reaffirms a successor’s right to make unilateral changes to the initial terms and conditions of employment upon commencement of operations (so long it is not “perfectly clear” that the successor intends to follow the existing agreement – a doctrine beyond the scope of this alert, as the “perfectly clear” doctrine is anything but perfectly clear).

In order to make such changes lawfully, however, the successor must make certain to provide adequate notice about the changes to employees. Notice will be deemed adequate if the successor communicates that it has the right to establish wages, benefits, and working conditions and provides enough general detail about the terms that may be subject to change. A cautious employer should be as specific as it can be when setting initial terms and conditions.

For further information, contact Gerald T. Hathaway or Shavaun Adams Taylor or any other member of the Labor and Employment Practice Group.

Source: Client Alert