The Battle of the Heavyweights – Title VII vs. the NLRA

The Battle of the Heavyweights – Title VII vs. the NLRA

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of HR Professionals Magazine.

Just like it’s in style these days for superheroes to battle each other on the big screen, two big employment laws are coming to blows – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and the obligation of an employer to enforce ideals related to equal employment opportunities) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (and the right of an employee to engage in protected concerted activity).

The fight has been brewing for a while. But, on August 8, 2017, the 8th Circuit entered the fray when it issued a split decision in favor of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Cooper Tire & Rubber Company v. NLRB, No. 16-2721. Here’s the background – Cooper Tire fired a guy named Anthony Runion for his conduct on a picket line. Specifically, Runion yelled at replacement workers (many of whom were African-American) brought in during a lockout, “Hey, did you bring enough KFC for everybody?” and “Hey anybody smell that? I smell fried chicken and watermelon.” Runion’s union filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement and filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. The arbitrator upheld the discharge under the collective bargaining agreement, but an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Cooper Tire violated the NLRA when it fired Runion. The NLRB upheld the ALJ’s decision, leading Cooper Tire to petition the 8th Circuit to review the case.

Stating “[o]ne of the necessary conditions of picketing is a confrontation in some form between union members and employees” and “[i]mpulsive behavior on the picket line is to be expected,” two of the three judges on the 8th Circuit panel deferred to the NLRB’s ruling, in part because they did not believe Runion’s comments singled out a specific person. Despite Cooper Tire’s argument that it had “the legal obligation under Title VII to apply its lawful policy prohibiting harassment to racist statements,” the two judges believed Cooper Tire was “under no legal obligation to fire Runion” and that its “obligations under Title VII do not conflict with Runion’s reinstatement.”

The dissenting judge on the panel wasn’t buying the other two judges’ argument, stating “[n]o employer in America is or can be required to employ a racial bigot.” Making the point that the NLRA does not protect the exercise of racial bigotry, the judge pointed to the “ambiance created by Runion at the Cooper Tire work site,” where a number of African-American employees worked and quoted a judge’s comments in another case from the D.C. Circuit:

I write . . . to convey my substantial concern with the too-often cavalier and enabling approach that the [NLRB’s] decisions have taken toward the sexually and racially demeaning misconduct of some employees during strikes. Those decisions have repeatedly given refuge to conduct that is not only intolerable by any standard of decency, but also illegal in every other corner of the workplace.

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Conduct that is designed to humiliate and intimidate another individual because of and in terms of that person’s gender or race should be unacceptable in the work environment.

To be clear, I don’t think anyone on the 8th Circuit panel believes Runion is “innocent” – the two judges responsible for the majority opinion are just saying the NLRB did not abuse its discretion in making the ruling (a very deferential standard).

About the time the 8th Circuit issued the Cooper Tire decision, a situation was about to blow up at Google. Now-former employee James Damore distributed to his coworkers a memo on gender issues in the tech industry. The memo, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber," contained statements like:

Women, on average, have more: 

Openness directed toward feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing v. systemizing). These two differences in part may explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas . . . .

Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

This memo got all over some of Damore’s colleagues (both male and female).

Generalizations can be a dangerous thing — in fact, Damore’s generalizations got him fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” While most employers want to foster a workplace that allows open discussion of issues, most employers also want to avoid being labeled a company that allows or encourages any type of openly racist or misogynist views or behavior. Here are some of the comments made by Google’s CEO Sundar Pinchai in response to Damore’s memo; you can see how he attempts to walk the fine line between Title VII and the NLRA:

First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate . . . . However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. . . . To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”

Google took exception to certain, specific statements in Damore's memo, and opted to fire him. He’s now filed a charge with the NLRB, claiming his statements were protected concerted conduct under the NLRA, even though his statements could be seen as an affront to the ideals expressed in Title VII (and other EEO laws).

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Where do things go from here? One has to expect that the full 8th Circuit will be asked to review the Cooper Tire case, although that case won’t end the battle. And don’t expect that the Google case will go away anytime soon. If you’d like to read two interesting points of view on this issue, try these out: Cynthia Lee’s article entitled “I'm a woman in computer science. Let me ladysplain the Google memo to you“ at https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/the-big-idea/2017/8/11/16130452/google-memo-women-tech-biology-sexismand Suzanne Lucas’ article entitled “Google Fires Employee for Expressing Opinion; Shocked When Employees Don’t Feel Safe Speaking Up” at https://www.inc.com/suzanne-lucas/google-fires-employee-for-expressing-an-opinion-s.html

I’m betting the ideals that form the basis of Title VII and an employer’s need to protect itself from discrimination and harassment claims will, in general, prevail over a person’s ability to make statements that could be seen as racist or sexist. However, any future decisions on the Title VII v. NLRA issue undoubtedly will be heavily dependent on the specific circumstances of each case.

Yes, private employers may be between a rock and a hard place on this issue, but when it comes down to it, what would you rather face – a single claim under the NLRA or the potential for several discrimination claims under Title VII that point to statements openly made by co-workers of the plaintiffs? My guess — making sure one complies with Title VII wins out.