|A Robust Public Debate: Realizing Free Speech in Workplace Representation Elections|
|Kate E. Andrias [View as PDF]|
112 Yale L.J. 2415 (2003)
The First Amendment stands as a guarantor of political freedom and as the "guardian of our democracy." It seeks to expand the vitality of public discourse in order to enable Americans to become aware of the issues before them and to pursue their ends fully and freely. As the Supreme Court wrote in the canonical case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the First Amendment's function is to create the "uninhibited, robust and wide-open" public debate necessary for the exercise of self-governance.
The Amendment plays a prominent role in the regulation of workplace representation elections, the process by which unorganized workers decide whether or not to unionize. Since the 1940s, and particularly since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, Congress and the courts have used the First Amendment to protect the right of employers to campaign against unionization. Holding that employers may say nearly anything in order to persuade their employees to vote "no" in a union election, the Supreme Court has permitted the National Labor Relations Board to proscribe employer speech only when it contains threats of reprisal or coercive promises. In so ruling, the Court has sought to balance employers' right of free speech, as well as their common-law property and managerial rights, with workers' right to unionize. Yet whether deeming speech to be prohibited or protected, the Court has framed the issue with the First Amendment weighing only on the side of employers. For the most part, existing academic work on union elections has implicitly accepted this approach, viewing employers' rights of speech, property, and management as clashing with workers' statutory right to organize, without invoking any countervailing First Amendment right on behalf of workers.
This Note challenges the Court's approach to the First Amendment for failing both to recognize and to protect the very real speech interests of workers and union organizers at stake in workplace representation elections. Building on the work of "democratic" free speech scholars, such as Alexander Meiklejohn, Owen Fiss, and Cass Sunstein, and applying their theories to a new arena, this Note argues that the Court's exclusive focus on safeguarding employer speech from state incursion leaves society vulnerable to powerful forces of private censorship. Specifically, the regime governing workplace elections allows employers to suppress worker speech and union messages, even as employers' own speech is protected. In so doing, the current law inhibits robust debate and collective self-governance both within the workplace and in society at large, and thereby contravenes the fundamental purpose of the First Amendment.
This Note identifies two distinct, but related, ways in which current doctrine governing workplace elections restricts the freedom of speech. First, it constrains the ability of workers to speak freely and limits the existence of robust debate inside the workplace. The law grants employers extensive rights to campaign against unionization, including the power to compel workers to listen, to suppress their responses, and to exclude the messages of union organizers from the workplace. At the same time, the law fails to protect effectively worker speech. In fact, over the past half-century, reprisals suffered by workers who engage in pro-union speech have increased dramatically to well over 10,000 documented cases per year.
Second, the suppression of worker speech and the exclusion of pro-union messages within the workplace hinders employees' exercise of free speech and the existence of robust debate outside of the workplace as well. When Americans spend much of their time without rights of expression and collective self-governance, they lose some ability to participate as active citizens in our society's democratic project. Furthermore, because the suppression of worker speech and pro-union messages enables employers to thwart the formation of unions, the ability of individual worker-citizens to engage effectively in public debate through their own collective organizations is impeded.
For these reasons, the First Amendment permits, and indeed requires, us to revise the flawed regime governing workplace representation elections, even if doing so entails some further limits on employer speech. Toward that end, this Note will propose a new framework that protects worker speech and union messages, a framework more faithful to the First Amendment's purpose of safeguarding democracy.
Part I of this Note examines the historical development of the "false paradigm," which views employers' First Amendment rights as in tension with statutory collective bargaining rights. It shows that, in the face of concerted pressure from employer groups, the Court, the Board, and Congress increasingly recast property and managerial rights in First Amendment terms while failing to consider the Amendment's democratic purposes. Narrowly focused on protecting individual autonomy from incursion by the state, the Court granted extensive First Amendment protection to employers but neglected the speech interests of workers and union organizers. Part II argues for a revised paradigm: Speech vs. Speech. This Part discusses how employer speech silences workers, and demonstrates that the current doctrine governing union elections fails to provide effective remedies for employer retaliation against pro-union speech, limits the right of workers not to hear employer speech, and constrains the ability of pro-union workers and union organizers to communicate their messages. Part III looks at the purposes of the First Amendment and argues that the jurisprudence on union elections fails to fulfill those purposes, both inside and outside the workplace. Part IV considers what a regime that protects worker and union free speech interests and furthers the democratic aims of the First Amendment might look like. It argues that new regulations on employer speech, as well as regulations to enable worker and union speech, are not only vital public policy, but are both permitted and required by the First Amendment.