Trump Labor Board Upends Special Status of Union Stewards

September 09, 2020 / Robert M. Schwartz




And you thought it couldn’t get any worse!

On July 21 the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) eliminated the special legal protections enjoyed by union grievance handlers for the past 70 years. In the interest of promoting workplace “civility,” the Board announced that employers will no longer be restrained from disciplining or discharging stewards or officers who use profanity or engage in other “abusive” actions in violation of an employer’s enforced code of conduct, even when these actions happen in the course of heated meetings with management.

The new decision, known as General Motors, overrules scores of NLRB rulings permitting grievance representatives to engage in “zealous” advocacy.

As far back as 1948, the Labor Board announced that:

The relationship at a grievance meeting is not a “master-servant” relationship but a relationship between company advocates on one side and union advocates on the other side, engaged as equal opposing parties in litigation.

In 1995, the Board said:

Some profanity and even defiance must be tolerated during confrontations over contractual rights.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court added that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA):

[G]ives a union license to use intemperate, abusive, or insulting language without fear of restraint or penalty if it believes such rhetoric to be an effective means to make its points.

In 1981, the influential Fifth Federal Circuit joined in, stating that:

The [National Labor Relations] Act has ordinarily been interpreted to protect the employee against discipline for impulsive and perhaps insubordinate behavior that occurs during grievance meetings, for such meetings require a free and frank exchange of view and often arise from highly emotional and personal conflicts.

These rulings, and others, allowed union representatives to use “salty language” and gestures when making cases to management. Discipline was forbidden unless an outburst included extreme profanity, repeated racial epithets, or physical threats. This became known as “stewards’ immunity” or the “equality principle.”


General Motors complains that the earlier Board rulings failed to acknowledge the employer's right “to maintain order and respect.”

“Much more often than not,” said the Board, workers are able to resolve conflicts among themselves in a civil manner, without resort to profanity. Why shouldn’t they be required to handle disputes with employers in the same manner? Civility, the Board explained, is “the one common bond that can hold us together.”

Cutting through the noise, the Board is really telling stewards to show respect no matter what a manager says or does. This is the same approach mandated by the British Master-Servant Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries—with firings replacing imprisonment.


General Motors discusses three union scenarios: grievance meetings, social media posts, and picket lines.

Grievance meetings. Grievance meetings are well-known flash points. HR personnel often goad union representatives with insults, jokes about vocabulary, or simply by playing dumb. At the same time, they defend trampling on the contract. It is not surprising that stewards become angry.

Before General Motors, “salty” responses such as “You’re talking s***” or “Stop acting like an a**h***” could not serve as grounds for warnings or more severe discipline. Under the Board’s new standard, employers can discipline militant leaders in the hope of sending a chill through the workforce.

Social media posts. Union members have historically been able to post vivid comments about managers on social media. After all, conduct outside the workplace is traditionally off-limits for employer discipline. In 2015, for example, the Board ruled that a company violated the NLRA when it discharged a poster for calling a manager a “nasty m*****f***er.”

Under its new standards, the Board is likely to uphold penalties for “abusive language” up to and including discharge.

Picket lines. The NLRB has long afforded protection to picket line banter, even when strikers used obscenities or made ad hominem personal attacks. Comments were only considered lawful grounds for discipline if they involved a threat of physical harm or included substantial racial or gender taunts.

General Motors permits employers to discipline strikers for picket line language that violates the employer’s enforced civility code, adding another risk to hitting the bricks.


Trump’s hold on the Labor Board will not last forever. Should Joe Biden win the presidency in November, he will be able to begin filling openings for members whose terms expire. But it may take until 2022 or later before Biden secures a majority on the five-member Board.



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Over time, a new Board may revisit some or all of the Trump Board aberrations, including General Motors. It is hard to predict what may come out in the mix. In the meantime, union representatives and members will need to tread carefully.


Q. Does General Motors apply to public sector workplaces?

A. No. The NLRB only has jurisdiction over private sector employers. Eventually, however, state labor boards often adopt federal standards.

Q. The NLRB almost always defers ULP charges over the discipline of stewards to the grievance-arbitration process. Will arbitrators apply the General Motors standards?

A. Hard to say. Veteran arbitrators are likely to stick with the existing standards requiring employers to tolerate zealous advocacy. Less experienced arbitrators may follow the NLRB’s new approach.

Q. Is there anything unions can do to increase our chances of winning grievances and arbitrations over steward civility violations?

A. One of the best defenses to a civility charge is discriminatory enforcement. Unions should maintain diaries or other records tracking instances when managers or supervisors use profanity with employees or in conversations with union representatives.

Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union labor lawyer. He is the author of several books including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards and No Contract, No Peace! A Legal Guide to Contract Campaigns, Strikes, and Lockouts. His books can be purchased from the Labor Notes online store.

Further Reading from Robert Schwartz

Robert Schwartz has been a frequent contributor to the pages of Labor Notes over the years. Here are a few highlights. For more, check out his Work Rights Press book series at Labor Notes.


Steward Training

In the midst of the crisis and with all of the challenges that we are facing in the courts, the Local has received a healthy number of people coming forward offering to serve as stewards. It seems that the more difficult the situations arising from the pandemic, the more the number of people coming forward to lend a hand in our effort to represent and protect our members in these trying times. 

As with all new stewards, CWA requires that they first go through a “basic training” through the district office, before actually being sworn in to serve and act as representatives of the Union, and more specifically, the Local. Of course, any steward who has already gone through the course may attend as a refresher, or to share their experience with others in an informal discussion toward the end. 

All new stewards MUST complete the course before representing members, filing grievances on their own, or discussing policies with administration. 

The date is set: 

November 14th, 2020.  

The time:

The time frame set presently is 8:00am to 4:00pm, with a 30 minute lunch break and other pauses. If the attendees finish the material before the stop time, then it will end earlier.

The place: 

Since COVID is still a thing, we will be sending everyone a Zoom link to attend the event.

This event is open to all members. We are looking forward to seeing the newly board-approved provisional stewards listed below:

Sergio Molina
Christina Guerrero
David Gala
Lucinda Aragón
Maya Fonseca
Carmen Marroquín
Vanessa Bonilla

This course is a requisite for continuing on as an official steward. Please send an email to [email protected] with “Nov 14 Steward Training” in the Subject line indicating you’ll be attending. It’s important to have a head count at least a week ahead of time to be able to send the manuals and other materials that will be important for the course.

If you have any questions, please contact [email protected] or call the local at 562 944 2341. 

We look seeing you there!

In solidarity,

Michael Ferreira

CWA recently joined other unions and environmental groups in suing the federal government regarding PPE & failure to protect frontline workers. 

CWA press release:

In Unity,

Robert Longer
Staff Representative

Region 2 Bargaining Committee

Positions Elected by Acclamation:

Donald Britton
Andrew Carreras
Rocio Gaeta
John Martin
Kristina Ramsey

Headway in Protecting Unit Work for Staff Interpreters – Kern County 

On September 15, 2020 CFI filed a grievance against Kern County Superior Court for hiring independent contractors over the 100 day limit. On Tuesday, September 29, union steward Maria Skaggs, and local board members, Janet Hudec and Mike Ferreira, met with the Court to discuss the issue highlighted in the grievance. 

During the meeting, the administration admitted not complying with the law and our MOU. The administration agreed to keep track of the number of days each o independent contractor works for the county, so as to avoid violating the time limit allowed by law and stated in the Region 3 contract. Two of the independent contractors who had been regularly employed by the Court will not be able to work until next year in compliance with the law. The administration also accepted to pay the lost wages of intermittent Los Angeles Court employee Stephanie Wohl, as she did not get a cross-assignment for that day.  

Furthermore, the administration will assume responsibility for giving priority to as-needed/intermittent employees of other counties before hiring independent contractors. The administration will have the option of using an independent contractor only when the fees of a pro tempore interpreter are unreasonable in comparison to the fees of an independent contractor. 

In having the Court admit to and correct its error, as well as compensating Stephanie Wohl, this Local makes clear to the Court that it will do whatever it takes to protect its members’ labor rights under the Region 3 MOU, and interpreter laws. 

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