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New Labor Ruling Could Prevent Graduate Students From Using Harvard-Provided Email to Organize

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that employers may bar unions from using company IT resources, including emails.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled that employers may bar unions from using company IT resources, including emails. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Davit Antonyan and Callia A. Chuang, Crimson Staff Writers

A recent National Labor Relations Board ruling may prevent members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers from using their Harvard-provided email addresses to organize strike efforts, according to experts.

In a three-to-one vote on Dec. 16, the NLRB ruled that employers can prohibit employees from using employer-provided equipment — including email addresses — to organize. This decision overturned an Obama-era ruling that employee communications over employer-provided email systems are protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

HGSU-UAW began its indefinite strike on Dec. 3, after spending more than a year negotiating with Harvard over its first contract.

Since the beginning of the strike, the University and the union have met for only one bargaining session, during which they agreed on six new contract provisions. The two parties have failed to agree, however, on key provisions regarding compensation, health care, and procedures for reporting discrimination and sexual harassment.

The next bargaining session is scheduled for Jan. 7. During that meeting, federal mediators will step in to facilitate negotiations, according to University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain. Harvard first proposed using a third-party mediation service last week.

HGSU-UAW uses email, among other means, to share information about bargaining progress and strike plans with its membership. For instance, union organizers recently announced in an email to members that they would continue the strike into winter break, using “virtual picket lines” to coordinate daily calls to administrators.

In the NLRB decision, the majority wrote that the new ruling adheres to “decades of Board precedent,” adding that the Obama-era ruling it overturned – known as Purple Communications, Inc. – “impermissibly discounted employers’ property rights in their IT resources.”

“We shall overrule Purple Communications and return to the standard announced in Register Guard,” the Board’s decision reads. “Under that standard, employees have no statutory right to use employer equipment, including IT resources, for Section 7 purposes.”

The decision specifies that employer-provided email addresses are a form of employer equipment.

“An employer’s communication systems, including its email system, are its property,” it reads. “Accordingly, employers have a property right to control the use of those systems.”

It remains unclear whether Harvard will decide to prohibit campus unions — including HGSU-UAW — from using Harvard-affiliated email addresses to organize.

Swain declined to comment on whether the University will continue to allow HGSU-UAW to use Harvard emails to organize, writing in an email that the University will first review the ruling.

Former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV said the new ruling could serve as a “major impediment to both organization and representation” for unions such as HGSU-UAW, and that the decision enables employers to effectively “kill union activity.”

“I think they'll have to wait and see what Harvard does,” he said. “They’ll have to watch to Harvard in the hopes that Harvard proceeds cautiously and carefully.”

Gould added that the University could face problems “practically” if it decides to implement a ban on organizing using Harvard emails.

“Many employers allow their employees to use email for both private communications or nonbusiness communications as well as business communications,” Gould said. “One question that is going to arise in the future is whether a rule which simply singles out union activity… can stand as lawful, even under the Board's decision, if the employer allows employees to use the email for other purposes which are not business-related, particularly if they can use them for other causes, like charitable organizations."

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at callia.chuang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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