Part I: How Workplace ADR Will Evolve Under the Biden Administration

By Antranik Chekemian

Anna Hershenberg, Vice President of Programs and Public Policy & Corporate Counsel, welcomed an online audience of nearly 200 attendees for the CPR Institute’s webinar “What Labor and Employment ADR Will Look Like Under a Biden Administration?” The Feb. 24 webinar was presented jointly by CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee and its Government & ADR Task Force.

This is the first of two CPR Speaks installments with highlights from the discussion.

Hershenberg shared background information for attendees who were new to CPR, and reviewed CPR activities. [Check out www.cpradr.org for future public and members-only events, including the March 25 program on Managing Conflict in the Workplace Remotely. For information on access and joining CPR, please visit CPR’s Membership webpage here.]

Hershenberg then turned the program over to Aaron Warshaw, a shareholder in the New York office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, who is chair of CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee. Warshaw described the Employment Disputes Committee as “made up of in-house employment counsel, management-side attorneys, employee-side attorneys, and neutrals. Throughout its long history, the committee … [has provided] a platform for all of the stakeholders to come together and explore ways to resolve disputes in employment matters,”.

Last year, the committee presented a panel discussion about COVID-19-related employment claims. (Video available here.) There was also a panel discussion on mass individual arbitration claims during last year’s CPR Annual Meeting in Florida.

Warshaw also noted that the committee is currently working on soon-to-be-released administered employment arbitration rules, and a workplace disputes programs. “There is also an active committee currently revising CPR’s Employment-Related Mass Claims Protocol,” he said.  The release of these projects will be announced at www.cpradr.org and on social media.

Warshaw then introduced the panel moderator, Arthur Pearlstein, who is Director of Arbitration for the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, a Washington, D.C.-based independent agency whose mission is to preserve and promote labor-management peace and cooperation. He also directs FMCS’s Office of Shared Neutrals and has previously served as the agency’s general counsel.

Pearlstein opened the conversation stating that “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran a campaign that reflected a closer alignment with organized labor than I think we’ve seen in a very long time.”

Pearlstein pointed out the remarks made by President Biden a week ahead of the CPR program, where the president called himself a “labor guy,” and referred to labor people as “the folks that brung me to the dance.” Pearlstein, however, noted that Biden “did hasten to add, ‘There’s no reason why it’s inconsistent with business-growing either.’”

Pearlstein further said that even though it had been just a month since the inauguration at the time of the panel discussion, already dramatic steps had been taken.  He cited the firing of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel.

The president has also issued a number of executive orders and halted some regulations. “He definitely wants to be seen as a champion of worker rights,” said Pearlstein.

Pearlstein added that Biden backs “the most significant piece of labor legislation since perhaps Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, . . . the PRO Act, that would dramatically change the landscape in the labor relations world in a way that’s very favorable to unions.” See Mark Kantor, “House Passes ‘PRO’ Act, Which Includes Arbitration Restrictions,” CPR Speaks (March 10) (available at https://bit.ly/38u5w87).

Biden also supports the FAIR Act which, if passed, could end mandatory employment arbitration, said Pearlstein, adding that Covid-19 in the workplace and the rights of gig workers are also important administration considerations. See Mark Kantor, “House Reintroduces a Proposal to Restrict Arbitration at a ‘Justice Restored’ Hearing,” CPR Speaks (Feb. 12) (available at http://bit.ly/3rze7y1).

Pearlstein introduced the panelists.

  • Mark Gaston Pearce is a Visiting Professor and Executive Director of the Georgetown University Law Center Workers’ Rights Institute. Formerly a two-term board member and chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Pearce previously taught at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
  • Kathryn Siegel is a shareholder in Littler Mendelsohn’s Chicago office, representing employers in matters of both employment law and labor relations before federal and state courts and federal agencies like the NLRB and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as state agencies.

Mark Kantor started off the conversation by focusing on two general areas:

a) the prospects for legislative change in the Congress for arbitration of employment and labor issues; and

b) the prospects for regulatory measures by independent or executive agencies in the absence of new legislation.

Kantor pointed out that the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act was reintroduced in the House and the Senate. The House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the matter on Feb. 11.

He noted that, in the previous Congress, the legislation passed the House of Representatives by a 225-186 vote–all Democrats plus two Republicans. When it reached the Senate, however, “it went nowhere,” he said. “Not surprising,” he said, under Republican control, “There were no hearings, there were no committee markups, no committee activity, and the FAIR Act certainly never reached the floor of the Senate.”

In the current Congress, however, he noted, “We can expect the FAIR Act to pass the House of Representatives again, and then go to the Senate. Matters in the Senate might be a little different than they were in the last Congress. We can . . . expect committee activity, hearings, possibly a markup, maybe getting the legislation to the floor of the Senate.”

He said that Senate floor challenges exist for the legislation, because substantive measures are subject to a filibuster. Overcoming a filibuster requires 60 votes.

He added that Republicans are united in their opposition to the FAIR Act as it currently stands. Moreover, trying to avoid the filibuster by altering Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster runs into the problem that there are at least two Democratic Senators who will oppose that: Sen. Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona. Therefore, he said, “overriding a filibuster seems highly unlikely.”

A way to avoid the filibuster is budget reconciliation, said Kantor, which is the route that was  taken for the Covid-19 stimulus legislation. He noted, however, that the FAIR Act’s anti-arbitration provisions are unlikely to fall within the scope of budget reconciliation. He further explained:

That means there are very few formal ways to avoid the filibuster. Some people have suggested that Vice President Harris might simply override a parliamentary ruling that the legislation is outside the scope of budget reconciliation. That is also not likely to go anywhere, because Senators Manchin and Sinema will not support that. Consequently, you don’t have 50 votes out of the Democrats and you’re certainly not going to get any Republican votes to reach the threshold to allow Vice President Harris to make that decision.

Kantor then noted that there could still be other prospects for passage:

  1. Appending the FAIR Act or other legislation to a “must pass” piece of legislation:  “That’s exactly how restrictions on arbitration for consumer finance and securities arbitration, and whistleblower protections, was passed as part of the Dodd-Frank Act [in 2010], which did get 60 votes in support, because it was ‘must pass’ legislation,” he said.

  2. Narrow legislation: Kantor noted that during the Feb. 11 hearing, “the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. [Ken Buck, a Republican] from Colorado, did signal an interest in supporting two narrow areas of restriction. One was for sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and the other was to override non-disclosure agreements for those two types of disputes.” Kantor added that Buck’s support sends a signal that Republicans on the Senate side also may be “open to focus targeted legislation, aiming at those two narrow areas.”

Kantor also pointed out that a provision in the National Defense Appropriations Act, which is renewed annually, “prohibits mandatory pre-dispute arbitration for sexual harassment and Title VII claims under procurement contracts in the national defense area and subcontracts for those procurements. That is not controversial in the national defense contracting community.”

But the bottom line here, he said, is that the filibuster will determine whether the FAIR Act or any of the other pieces of legislation like the PRO Act, which contain restrictions on pre-dispute arbitration for employment and labor, have a chance of Senate passage.

On regulatory measures, Kantor pointed out that the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis decision “set a very high barrier to utilizing preexisting general statutory authority for administrative agencies, independent, or executive agencies. It said that in order to prevail, the claim must show ‘clear and manifest’ intention to displace the Federal Arbitration Act.”

He continued: “Congress would be expected to have specifically addressed preexisting law, such as the Federal Arbitration Act. That meant ‘no’ for the [Fair Labor Standards Act], ‘no’ for the [National Labor Relations Act], and in subsequent court decisions, also ‘no’ for Title VII, [the Americans with Disabilities Act], [and the Age Discrimination in Employment] arguments.”

As a result, he added, one “can’t generally rely on pre-existing labor relations legislation to override mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements.” But Kantor provided two possible avenues agencies could explore in order to not run into an Epic Systems problem. He explained:

One is that you could avoid Epic Systems by focusing on the prohibition of class procedures, and prohibiting a prohibition of class procedures in any forum–that would be litigation and arbitration, and therefore would be nondiscriminatory. Indeed, the Epic Systems decision says, in essence, the Federal Arbitration Act sets up a nondiscrimination approach to whether or not other acts can be utilized to prevent arbitration. If it’s focused only on a fundamental attribute of arbitration, then there might be conflict preemption by the FAA. On the other hand, if it spreads more generally, there might not be.

The second avenue would be to look at nondisclosure agreements as Rep. Buck mentioned during the Feb. 11 hearing. Kantor added that the FAIR Act covers employment, civil rights, class action, antitrust legislation, and consumer disputes. If passed, it would also prohibit pre-dispute joint-action waivers of those disputes in any forum.

* * *

Mark Gaston Pearce’s highlights focused on what is to be expected from the National Labor Relations Board with the Biden Administration.

Pearce started off with a focus on the composition of the five-member NLRB. by pointing out that even though Biden is in office, the majority of the NLRB is still Republican appointees, and that this will not change until August 2021.

He then discussed some of the NLRB cases. “There is a lot to be undone by the Trump board since the Trump board did a whole lot of undoing itself,” he said. He explained: “Among those things that the Trump board did was weakening the election reforms that were made in 2015,” said Pearce.

He explained that the Trump board changed union election rules by providing employers an increased ability to challenge and litigate certain issues prior to the election, and increased the length of time between the filing of a petition and the election date. “They were mandating that there should be a certain minimum time period to pass before an election,” he said.

Moreover, the Trump Board “lengthened the time period for an employer to serve a voter list and lengthened the time period for which an election is to be held if there was going to be a challenge to the [NLRB] Regional Director’s decision,” he said. [Among other things, Regional Directors are empowered to administer union elections.  See the NLRB’s Organization and Functions, Sec. 203.1 (available at https://bit.ly/3ls48Ij.]

Pearce explained, “All of those provisions and a few more were struck by a [federal] district court judge once [they] went into effect. The basis for . . . striking . . . those provisions was that the board had determined that these actions were strictly procedural, and therefore under the . . . Administrative Procedure Act, they were not obliged to go through the full notice and comment requirements.” The district court decision, however, has been appealed and it is currently pending before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.

Pearce added that it is unlikely a decision will be issued before a new majority is in place. He noted that “it’s very likely that a new majority will withdraw that appeal and those provisions of the new rule will never see the light of the day.”

Pearce said MV Transportation standards–from a 2019 NLRB decision on whether an employer’s unilateral action is permitted by a collective-bargaining agreement—will affect  arbitrators. In the case, he explained, the NLRB abandoned a standard requiring the employer to bargain over any material changes to a mandatory subject of bargaining unless the union gave a “clear and unmistakable waiver” of its right to bargain on the changes. The new standard is based on the “contract coverage.”

The “clear and unmistakable waiver” standard, Pearce explained, generally hindered an employer’s ability to make changes, so instead the board adopted the broader contract coverage standard for determining whether unionized employers’ unilateral change in terms and conditions of employment violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Pearce predicted that “MV Transportation will be revisited because the outgrowth . . . has been that unions, fearing that their position would be waived, are negotiating contracts with so many provisos or are likely to negotiate contracts with so many provisos in it that contract negotiations have become fairly untenable.”

He noted, however, that “with respect to arbitrators, there was always going to be an issue of whether or not, in fact, there is truly a contract coverage for the change that is being proposed,  and I don’t think parties are going to want to constantly go to arbitration over every little thing that they plan on doing.”

Pearce then discussed recent developments in the area of higher education. He noted that there was a proposed rule that graduate students not be considered as employees under the National Labor Relations Act. He added, however, that it was unlikely for that rule to be adopted as the majority will likely object to such status. He said he predicts that there is going to be an “increase in petitions filed for graduate student bargaining units in the universities.”

“On the other hand,” Pearce explained, “[Last year’s NLRB decision] Bethany College, which reversed [a 2013 board decision,] Pacific Lutheran, . . . has resulted in a policy that has emanated from the courts that religious universities do not have to show much to consider themselves to have a religious bent and direction and therefore exclude faculty from being able to unionize.”

He directed attendees to the recent NLRB General Motors decision. “General Motors changed the standards with respect to offensive speech . . . during the course of protected concerted activity,” he said. Pearce added that cases involving sexist and racist remarks set on the picket line is an area that should not have received protections under the NLRA, though he said he backed the board’s decision in the case.

* * *

In a soon-to-be-posted Part II on the Feb. 24 CPR Employment Disputes Committee event, CPR Speaks will focus on the remarks of panelist Kathryn Siegel, and include a discussion among Moderator Pearlstein and Panelists Kantor, Pearce, and Siegel.

* * *

The author, a second-year student at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is a CPR 2021 intern.

[END]

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