Michigan Repeals “Right-to-Work” Law

Michigan’s “Freedom to Work” law, effective since 2013, currently prohibits public and private sector employees from being required, as a “condition of employment,” to belong to a labor union or to pay a “service fee” in lieu of membership. The current law also invalidates any collective bargaining provision to the contrary, and prohibits enforcement of such unlawful provisions.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law legislation repealing the Freedom to Work law insofar as it applies to private-sector employees. The repealer will be effective as of March 30, 2024. Governor Whitmer signed a separate bill that would similarly repeal these prohibition as to public sector workers in the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a 2018 decision that essentially adopted similar “right-to-work” principles with respect to public sector employees and unions. That decision ruled that it is a violation of public workers’ first amendment speech rights to be required to join or financially support public sector labor unions through mandatory “service fees.”

When the new law takes effect, it will, for the first time since 2013, be legal for private-sector unions to negotiate and enforce “union security” requiring membership in, or financial support through “Beck Objector” fees, of those unions.  See NLRB FAQ’s

Per data collected by researchers available at unionstats.com, in 2022, close to 39,000 private sector workers in Michigan were covered by a collective bargaining agreement but were not union members paying dues or service fees. Now, when the new law goes into effect, those individuals will be required to pay dues or fees. Employers can be forced to fire bargaining unit workers who refuse to pay dues or fees under the enforcement of a lawful union security clause.

Private Sector employers in Michigan have approximately one year to prepare for the effective date of the new law. Employers with unionized workforces should anticipate attempts by unions to enforce “suspended’ union security clauses or renegotiate such provisions into future collective bargaining agreements, and plan accordingly.

If you have questions about the new law or require assistance, please contact David J. Houston or your Fraser Trebilcock attorney.

This alert serves as a general summary and does not constitute legal guidance. Please contact us with any specific questions.

Attorney David J. HoustonFraser Trebilcock Shareholder Dave Houston has over 40 years of experience representing employers in planning, counseling, and litigating virtually all employment claims and disputes including labor relations (NLRB and MERC), wage and overtime, and employment discrimination, and negotiation of union contracts. He has authored numerous publications regarding employment issues. You can reach him at 517.377.0855 or dhouston@fraserlawfirm.com.

Recent NLRB Decision Makes Unlawful the Proffer of a Severance Agreement with Standard “Confidentiality” and “Non-Disparagement” Provisions


In McLaren Macomb, 372 NLRB No. 58 (2023), the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) overruled two prior decisions and held that an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) “when it proffers a severance agreement with provisions that would restrict employees’ exercise of their NLRA rights,” including agreements containing reasonably standard confidentiality-of-agreement and non-disparagement provisions.

First, understand that the NLRA, and this caselaw, basically applies to all non-supervisory private-sector employees. See, NLRB FAQs.  More specifically, the NLRA is not limited in application to employees who are in or seeking to establish a “labor organization.”

Second, understand that “overruling precedent” is somewhat a misnomer. Since the Board is comprised 3-2 of the appointees of the political party holding the presidency, Board law flops back and forth with great regularity.

The Case Decision

McLaren invalidated the language shown in bold, below:

Confidentiality Agreement. The Employee acknowledges that the terms of this Agreement are confidential and agrees not to disclose them to any third person, other than spouse, or as necessary to professional advisors for the purposes of obtaining legal counsel or tax advice, or unless legally compelled to do so by a court or administrative agency of competent jurisdiction.

Non-Disclosure. At all times hereafter, the Employee promises and agrees not to disclose information, knowledge or materials of a confidential, privileged, or proprietary nature of which the Employee has or had knowledge of, or involvement with, by reason of the Employee’s employment. At all times hereafter, the Employee agrees not to make statements to Employer’s employees or to the general public which could disparage or harm the image of Employer, its parent and affiliated entities and their officers, directors, employees, agents and representatives.

You’ve used that language in plenty of agreements, right?

What to do? What Won’t Work:

The most direct “accommodation” of this Board decision would of course be to revise the offending language. This is unlikely to be successful. Specifically, a core principle of the NLRA is to protect worker rights to communicate freely about “employment-related” issues, broadly defined, and without explicit or implicit limitation by any policy or act of the employer. This protection is exactly contrary to the purpose of both “confidentiality” and “non-disclosure” (or more usefully, “non-disparagement”) provisions in severance agreements, or for that matter, elsewhere in the employer’s policy statements.

Historically employers have attempted to insulate possibly violative language in employment documents (including handbooks) by including a “No-NLRA Inclusion” disclaimer. Such as, “Nothing in this Handbook in any way restricts, limits, or infringes upon any right of any employee under the National Labor Relations Act.” The problem here is, the Board has rigorous standards for what might be a sufficient disclaimer, and the foregoing isn’t close.

Prior Board caselaw has commented on what type of non-disparagement language might pass muster. Here’s what the Board has had to say about that: The employer may permissibly impose a prior restraint rule on worker statements that demonstrate “sharp, public, disparaging attacks upon the quality of the company’s product and its business policies, in a manner reasonably calculated to harm the company’s reputation and reduce its income.” Such a rule is not likely to be satisfactory in most cases – if anything, it informs angry workers where the line of permissible misconduct is drawn and suggests disparagement of employer and product.

These principles do highlight one important provision: a “severability” clause. McLaren does not discuss the possibility that inclusion of unlawful provisions could be the basis of an invalidation of an entire severance agreement. But it’s not an unrealistic concern. Include a satisfactory severance provision that protects the overall purpose of the agreement.

What Else to do?

The informed employer is faced with a dilemma: implement severance language that risks running afoul of Board precedent or do without reasonably typical restrictions on disclosure or discussion of severance agreement terms. Unfortunately, the “safe harbor” likely requires seriously limited or unhelpful confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions.

The typical “remedy” for a violation of this nature, and the remedy awarded in McLaren, is to “cease and desist” from proffering unlawful language in future severance agreements and post a notice of the immediate violation in prominent places in the employer’s facility. Now that the new “rule” is announced, however, future remedies could include (a) rescission of the offending agreements; (b) notification of other employees who signed unlawful agreements (subject to the statutory 6-month limitations period) and other remedial orders.

This alert serves as a general summary and does not constitute legal guidance. Please contact us with any specific questions.

Attorney David J. HoustonFraser Trebilcock Shareholder Dave Houston has over 40 years of experience representing employers in planning, counseling, and litigating virtually all employment claims and disputes including labor relations (NLRB and MERC), wage and overtime, and employment discrimination, and negotiation of union contracts. He has authored numerous publications regarding employment issues. You can reach him at 517.377.0855 or dhouston@fraserlawfirm.com.

Recent NLRB Memorandum Argues that Certain College and University Student-Athletes Qualify as Employees and Should be Afforded Statutory Protections

The debate on whether college or university athletes should be considered as employees isn’t a new one, especially in light of coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban receiving almost a $10 million salary. In fact, college coaches dominate lists of highest paid public employees in most states.

The conversation on the disparity between coach pay, revenue generated by the NCAA and higher education institutions from sports, and student-athletes seeking compensation for their participation is evolving. In July 2021, the NCAA adopted a new name, image and likeness (NIL) policy, by which student-athletes can be compensated for the use of their NIL. In addition, a recent memorandum by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel redefined the term “employee” as it applies to student-athletes. In the September 2021 nine-page memorandum, general counsel Jennifer A. Abruzzo takes the position that student-athletes are misclassified. The memorandum opens the door for students to be considered employees of a private university or college and have the option to unionize and participate in collective bargaining under the NLRB.

The purpose of the memorandum is to put private universities and colleges on notice of  NLRB’s pro-labor policy. NLRB doesn’t have jurisdiction over wages and compensation and cannot compel colleges and universities to pay student-athletes. The memorandum is not considered binding precedent, but Abruzzo’s reasoning indicates NLRB’s position should the right case appear before the board.

The Reasoning Behind the Memorandum

Abruzzo’s reasoning focuses on several key points, including misclassifying the term “student-athlete,” redefining the term “employee” in the context of an athlete, and the increasing social and racial justice activism occurring on campuses.

First, the memo argues colleges’ and universities’ use of the term “student-athlete” is an inherent  misclassification. This label prevents the athlete at a college or university from pursuing protection under federal law. Instead, Abruzzo calls on institutions to classify athletes as “players at academic institutions.”

In her second point, Abruzzo defines the term employee in the context of an athlete playing a sport at a college or university. “Players at Academic Institutions perform services for institutions in return for compensation and are subject to their control. Thus, the broad language of Section 2(3) of the Act, the policies underlying the NLRA, Board law, and the common law fully support the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment,” Abruzza asserts in her memorandum.

For example, a basketball player who plays on behalf of his or her private university and the NCAA performs a service by playing on the team and receives compensation in the form of a scholarship. The coach and staff dictate practices and general working conditions for the athlete.

Lastly, the memorandum also addresses the recent activism by students on campus. In the last few years, there has been an increase in participation in advocating for social and racial justice issues. She specifically highlights the Black Lives Matter movement and states that athletes who participate in such activism to improve working conditions should be protected from retaliation.

Precedent that supports NLRB’s recent memorandum

Abruzzo’s current memorandum essentially picks up where a 2017 memorandum left off. The NLRB, in GC 17-01, stated that Division 1 scholarship football players who competed in the NCAA at private colleges are employees, but declined to intervene. The memo was rescinded by the Trump administration, and the current Abruzzo memorandum reinstates the point that the football players at issue satisfy the definition of employee under Section 2(3) and the common-law agency test, in which an employee is “a person who performs services for another and is subject to the other’s control or right to control.”

In the June 2021 Supreme Court decision in NCAA vs. Alston, the Court unanimously upheld that a cap on education-related benefits for athletes violated antitrust laws. In his concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that college athletes “collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year. Those enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes. College presidents, athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners, and NCAA executives take in six- and seven-figure salaries. Colleges build lavish new facilities. But the student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.” Given this context, Kavanaugh suggests collective bargaining could be a solution to provide college athletes a fairer share of the revenue their institutions generate. This decision also indicates that the court is moving toward legislation that benefits the athlete playing for a private institution or college.

In addition, Abruzzo notes that players at academic institutions can now be compensated for the use of their NIL, similar to professional athletes.

What are the practical implications of the memorandum for public universities and colleges?

As it stands, the NLRB memorandum impacts only private universities and doesn’t apply to athletes in public universities. For example, in Michigan, where there isn’t a Division 1 private school, the public universities are subject to the jurisdiction of the MIchigan Employment Relations Commission rather than the NLRB.

There is a potential caveat since Abruzzo indicated that she might pursue a joint employer theory of liability to apply to public universities as well. She concedes that the current memorandum puts athletes at public universities out of reach, but if (potentially) an NLRB-covered entity is involved in the conditions or terms of employment, the joint employer liability theory might extend to these institutions. The current memorandum certainly opens the door to that possibility. Abruzzo explicitly states, “I will consider pursuing charges against an athletic conference or association even if some member schools are state institutions.”

For those institutions that fall within the scope of the memorandum, there will be more of an impetus to form unions. It is unlikely this development will occur immediately, but Abruzzo’s memorandum clearly sets up the possibility.

The underpinnings of the memorandum certainly challenge the current model employed by private universities and colleges as well as NCAA policy on compensation. If one college or basketball program started paying their athletes, what impact would this have on competition overall? Would the public universities feel the need to follow suit?

The NLRB position seems to embrace a pro-labor stance. The landscape of the student-athlete appears to be evolving, and clearly the colleges and universities – both private and public – need to be attuned to these changes.

If you have any questions, please contact Ryan Kauffman.

Fraser Trebilcock Attorney Ryan Kauffman

Ryan K. Kauffman is a Shareholder at Fraser Trebilcock with more than a decade of experience handling complex litigation matters and representing higher education institutions. You can contact him at rkauffman@fraserlawfirm.com or 517.377.0881.

National Labor Relations Board Addresses Social Media Policies

On July 31, the Senate confirmed five new members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), three Democrats and two Republicans, restoring the NLRB to full membership for the first time in a decade.

Established by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, the NLRB has increasingly become a focus of partisan politics, with the party holding the White House appointing a majority of either pro-labor or pro-business members. Unlike a court of law, the NLRB is not bound by its own precedent. Its decisions on controversial issues swing wildly based upon the party makeup of the sitting board. In fact, “party oscillation” has become the NLRB’s new norm, following a change in administration. With a solid three member pro-union majority on the recently appointed board, President Obama’s pro-Union agenda should have very little problem in being advanced.

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