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Employment Law Alert: NLRB Says Syracuse University’s “Staff Complaint Process” Not A Labor Organization

In a 2-1 decision, the NLRB held that the “Staff Complaint Process” program instituted by Syracuse University in January 2003 as a method of addressing certain work-related complaints of its unrepresented employees was not a “labor organization” under the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).

Under the program, an employee who was issued disciplinary action for violating a rule, policy or practice of the University could have the action reviewed. The University’s Human Resources Department recruited and trained volunteers (both supervisors and non-supervisors) to serve as panelists, advocates and mediators under the program, which operated during working hours using facilities and supplies provided by the University. A complaint would initially be assigned to a mediator, who would work with the employee and his/her supervisor to try to resolve it. The complaining employee would choose a mediator from the “pool” of available volunteers, and could also select an advocate to help him/her with presenting his/her case. The mediators were empowered to request the participation of up to two higher levels of management to try to reach a settlement. If the mediation stage failed to result in a settlement, the employee’s complaint would proceed to a “formal” stage. At that point, three panelists selected randomly from the pool would conduct an evidentiary hearing and issue a written decision. The Vice President of Human Resources could then either accept the decision or request reconsideration. In such instances, a final decision, appealable to another three-member panel, would be issued. The appeal panel would then review the final decision and issue its recommendation, which would then be binding upon the University.

Bottom Line

This program was challenged by the Teamsters -- who were in the process of attempting to organize the University’s parking service employees -- as constituting a labor organization under Section 2(5) of the Act. Section 8(a)(1) of the Act prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ exercise of their right to form or join unions, while Section 8(a)(2) prohibits employers from dominating or interfering with the formation or administration of such organizations. By finding that the “Staff Complaint Process” was not a labor organization, the Board gave Syracuse University -- and other employers with similar internal complaint processes -- a significant victory.

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