One month after a federal appellate court in Chicago upheld a decision by the National Labor Relations Board regarding workplace committees, the court's counterpart in Richmond, Va., came to the rescue of hospital management.
In a closely watched case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 18 that a Maryland hospital didn't commit an unfair labor practice by participating in a nursing committee because the committee wasn't a traditional labor group.
With that ruling, the three-judge panel reversed a September 1993 decision by the NLRB, which said the committee was a labor organization protected from undo influence from hospital management.
The panel said there was insufficient evidence to support the NLRB's conclusion that the nursing service organization at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md., was designed to or did deal with the hospital on workplace issues such as wages, benefits and work hours (March 21, p. 59).
The hospital's 500 nurses formed the committee in 1968 primarily to serve the social concerns of its members, such as sending flowers to sick nurses.
In 1990, the committee began serving as a forum for nurses to discuss working conditions with the hospital's vice president for nursing. The hospital also began kicking in $500 annually to cover the committee's meeting costs.
After an unsuccessful union organizing campaign at the hospital, the Maryland Nurses Association, which sought to represent the nurses, filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital. The association said the committee was a labor organization as defined by federal law, and the hospital broke the law by participating in the committee's deliberations.
A federal administrative law judge sided with the union, as did the five-member NLRB on appeal.
But the 4th Circuit reversed the NLRB's ruling and rescinded the board's cease-and-desist order against the hospital. The court said the committee did serve as a forum to discuss workplace issues but never attempted to deal collectively with hospital management.
The court rendered its decision 33 days after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the NLRB's decision in a similar case involving an electronic manufacturing company in Indiana (Oct. 24, p. 16).
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit said the company used internal joint management-labor committees to quell employee unrest and create the impression that employee workplace concerns were being taken seriously.
The unfair labor practice charge against the company was filed by a local union that unsuccessfully tried to organize the plant's workers.
Hospitals should review joint management-labor committees to ensure they don't cross the line, especially when a union is conducting an organizing campaign, said labor attorney John Lyncheski of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh.