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In Beyond the Bad Apple-Transforming the American Workplace for Women After #metoo, Professor Claudia Flores takes on the timeworn cliché of the proverbial “bad apple” who acts aberrantly and out of cultural context in the workplace, as well as a host of other over- and under-simplifications of elusive, pervasive workplace issues that result in the imprudent adjudication of disputes.

She begins from a very simple premise: while sex discrimination and harassment may be rife in the American workplace, there are too many structural and other impediments for any kind of meaningful, large scale individual ability to vindicate one’s rights completely under Title VII. She writes: “Complaint-based employer policies, contractually-mandated arbitration agreements, time-limited administrative exhaustion requirements, and narrow judicial interpretations of actionable conduct have created a myriad of barriers to workers seeking enforcement. For women (and some men) targeted by harassing behavior it has often been too costly–financially, professionally, and personally–to navigate a system that depends almost exclusively on individual complainants to prompt social reform.” (P. 85.) This is all too true. I often posit to my own students that society depends upon the “ripple effects” of Title VII.  The statute’s sheer existence and awareness of it as it has pervaded the news and popular culture—recall the 1980’s, during which many situation comedies had “a very special episode,” in which a character encountered sexual harassment.  Title VII’s ripples operate to chill offensive behavior in the workplace in a way in which individuals’ access to the courts to vindicate their rights simply does not.

Building on this premise, Professor Flores gets to what is one of the best things about this piece: its frank articulation of what it is about sexual harassment law and courts’ interpretation of it that frustrates but eludes people. Right out of the gate, Professor Flores explains the near-ineffable eloquently: “U.S. law has largely relied on the ‘bad apple’ theory of harassment. The harasser is a wayward employee and the employer an innocent third party to interpersonal relations and relation(ships) that have gone awry.” (P. 85.) Viewed through this lens by those charged with interpreting and navigating this law, Professor Flores explains, courts promulgate flawed frameworks within which to adjudicate sexual harassment cases. These tests, which “rely on prevailing opinions of gendered interactions,” belie what research has taught us about the true typical nature of sexual harassment: that it is inextricably linked to behavioral workplace patterns and culture. (P. 85.)

With this in mind, Professor Flores calls for a reconceptualization of sexual harassment that centers “less on sex and more on harassment and less on liability and more on prevention.” (P. 86.) Indeed, her vision of a more robust enforcement system is then born of a thorough review and assessment of not only the United States’ suboptimal (in her view) system, but also of other countries’ and international standards and approaches. The vision she ultimately posits, both “grounded in the dual concepts of human dignity and equality,” and situating sexual harassment, “as one form of workplace abuse, among others,” indeed does sound like one that will better effectuate Title VII’s objectives and better realize its promise. (P. 86.)

Professor Flores’s journey toward this vision is both engaging and informative. The background and exposition of the law is clear and complete. The ensuing critique of what she terms the United States’ “complaint-dependent, liability-focused process, saddled with under-resourced administrative hurdles and courts that have narrowed the statute’s potential,” is thorough and thoughtful. (P. 94.) Specifically, she issues an entreaty for acknowledgment that sexual harassment is engendered by a more systemic sexism and by misogyny, and it should not be conceptualized as disembodied interpersonal incidents. Once this occurs, she argues, the law can stop focusing solely on certain paradigmatic incidents, while ignoring or eschewing more nuanced, subtle interactions that feed the same beast. By issuing a cry for sexual harassment to be viewed as a tactic, deployed for gain in some environments, rather than a singular event, this piece adds to the rich literature on the topic of adopting a more holistic in American sexual harassment jurisprudence.

Particularly of interest is this piece’s tour through international and comparative approaches to combating sexual harassment in the workplace. By emphasizing the ideological underpinnings of the regulation and the lens through which the harassment is seen in various contexts, this part of the piece is able to shed light on differences among enforcement structures and mechanisms.  So, for example, it makes sense that the international human rights legal system conceptualizes sexual harassment as a form of abuse or violence, and thus situates its regulation within workplace rights and standard violations. Whereas in some places, sexual harassment is conceptualized as a “health and safety problem,” and its regulation is linked to workplace health and safety maintenance,  in others, the problem is inextricably linked to bullying, and harassment is addressed through a lens and within a vehicle that fits into that particular context. It is useful for the reader to understand how the goals and conceptualizations of each legal regime shapes each’s regulations, legal frameworks, and enforcement mechanisms. Interestingly, in the United States, the regulation of sexual harassment under Title VII is divorced from the regulation of workplace health and safety issues, which is accomplished through the vehicle of other statutes, and workplace bullying is not unlawful.

What follows is a thoughtful analysis of “Dignity and Equality in the American Context” that explores the question of whether and how a dignity-centered approach to regulation might work in a society that eschews viewing workplace regulation as a “civility code,” and prefers to focus on protected class status. (Pp. 105-09.) While the viability of a dignity-based approach has often been dismissed by scholars in the United States, the piece argues, such an approach might just “provide us with a positive vision of the workplace, which we currently lack.” Moreover, Professor Flores points out that conceptualizing sexual harassment as an issue of workplace wellbeing, as well as workplace equality, has the potential to impel employer accountability and proactiveness when it comes to workplace maintenance.

I started this piece admittedly predisposed to favor a dignity-centered model of regulation, and I finished it better informed about the way in which sexual harassment is viewed and addressed in numerous other contexts, and convinced, more than ever, that Professor Flores has the right idea. Sexual harassment law, as it is, is clunky and porous. The regulation of sexual harassment probably does belong more in the same conversation as issues such as wage inequality, workplace health and safety, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, that devalue and debilitate the American worker. As Professor Flores puts it, “sexual harassment is likely to thrive in environments where workers are not valued, where women workers are particularly undervalued, and where employers have not provided a functional environment that discourages exploitation of existing societal status-based hierarchies and inequalities.” (Pp. 115-16.) And she has the evidence: “#MeToo reports circulated in the media this year were filled with examples of workplaces with no regulation, little worker value, and the absence of working systems of accountability.” (P. 116.) At the end of the day, the piece’s reframings, holistic approach, and suggestions are worthy of consideration. Its critiques of the current approach in this country are valid. It’s a worthwhile read; you will like it lots.

Cite as: Kerri Lynn Stone, Post-Sexist?, JOTWELL (June 17, 2020) (reviewing Claudia Flores, Beyond the Bad Apple-Transforming the American Workplace for Women After #metoo, 2019 U. Chi. Legal F. 85 (2019)),

Socialization at Work and #MeToo Backlash

Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap, NBER Working Paper No. 26950 (Mar. 2020).

As the #MeToo movement has matured, researchers have begun to observe a second-order effect of the mass public calling-out of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct: the use of “defensive” tactics by male workers and managers to reduce contact with women at and outside of work, meant to avoid potential #MeToo claims. Such tactics might take the form of a “Mike Pence rule,” referencing the U.S. Vice President’s refusal to dine with a woman alone or attend an event with alcohol outside the presence of his wife, or a manager’s decision to pull back from a mentoring relationship with a junior female colleague.

Indeed, in a survey of 152 men and 303 women across industries, organizational psychologist Leanne E. Atwater and her co-authors found that one-third of male respondents reported reluctance to have a private meeting with a woman, post-#MeToo.1 Likewise, twenty-two percent of men and forty-four percent of women predicted that women would be excluded from work-related social interactions like gatherings for drinks after work.2 Another survey administered by found that sixty percent of male managers reported discomfort working alone with, mentoring, or socializing with women colleagues, an almost one-third jump from the prior year.

Recent work by economists Zoë Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia suggests how harmful this professional and social exclusion may be for women workers. In a clever new study, Cullen and Perez-Truglia tracked the promotion patterns of male and female employees who were assigned to teams with male or female managers at a large, multinational commercial bank. Exploiting employees’ switches between male-led and female-led teams, the researchers found a substantial male-to-male advantage that was both statistically and economically significant: “male managers (relative to female managers) improve[d] the career progression of male employees (relative to female employees).” (P. 5.) After controlling for productivity and turnover, Cullen and Perez-Truglia estimate that this male-male advantage accounted for almost forty percent of the gender gap in pay. (P. 3.)

Interestingly for #MeToo, this finding held only when male workers and managers worked in close physical proximity. In addition, the more breaks a male worker took alongside a male manager, the greater the male-male advantage. Moreover, male workers who smoked, and who switched onto teams with male managers who also smoked (thereby presumably spending substantial break time together), saw the greatest bump in their promotion prospects. Finally, the male-male advantage emerged slowly, benefiting men’s promotion chances only after a year on male-male teams. Cullen and Perez-Truglia thus point to socialization – a slow, gradual process by which male managers come to know and advocate for their male subordinates – rather than rank misogyny, as the mechanism by which the male-male benefit was conferred.

Though Cullen and Perez-Truglia do not connect their research explicitly to #MeToo and its unintended consequences, their study complements the survey results summarized above by underlining the key role that socialization can play in advancement at work. If, as their research suggests, male workers benefit disproportionately from socialization opportunities with male managers, then the increased female exclusion and isolation that result from the Mike Pence rule and its variants will only cement the male-male advantage further in place. In addition, separate and apart from #MeToo, research like Cullen’s and Perez-Truglia’s provides a valuable empirical basis for arguments about the potentially discriminatory effect of subjective screening and evaluation processes at work.

What, then, to do? Cullen and Perez-Truglia suggest involving multiple managers in promotion decisions, using more objective measures of performance in evaluating employees, and sponsoring gender-neutral social activities. Other possibilities include “nudges” built into screening and evaluation systems to prompt managers to identify their biases and deliberately think beyond them. However, as Cullen and Perez-Truglia note, more research is necessary to determine these strategies’ effectiveness. This type of empirical work is particularly important post-#MeToo, to push back against the exclusion and isolation of women workers, and to prevent male-male advantage from becoming even further embedded in the structure and organization of work.

  1. Leanne E. Atwater, Allison M. Tringale, Rachel E. Sturm, Scott N. Taylor and Phillip W. Braddy, Looking Ahead: How What We Know About Sexual Harassment Now Informs Us of the Future (2019).
  2. Id.
Cite as: Charlotte S. Alexander, Socialization at Work and #MeToo Backlash, JOTWELL (April 28, 2020) (reviewing Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap, NBER Working Paper No. 26950 (Mar. 2020)),

Failing to Protect Democracy by Failing to Protect Government Employee Whistleblower Speech

Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr., Whistleblowing Speech and the First Amendment, 93 Ind. L.J. 267 (2018).

In Professor Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr.’s article, Whistleblowing Speech and the First Amendment, he considers how the First Amendment fails to protect the whistleblower speech of government employees and argues the insufficient protection may weaken our democracy. He claims the Supreme Court’s inadequate protection of government employee speech discourages the disclosure of important information that could help voters hold government and its officials accountable. The paucity of speech protection leads to a lack of information which leaves the public underinformed and unable to make intelligent electoral decisions about matters of public importance.

The article is worth the read for its analysis of First Amendment doctrine regarding the speech of government employees, but its focus on the harm to our democracy that flows from that doctrine makes the article particularly fresh and vital. Prof. Krotoszynski’s insights are doubly important in the wake of the whistleblowing allegations that have fueled Congress’ impeachment inquiry regarding President Trump. For all of those reasons, Prof. Krotoszynski’s article is a Thing I Like Lots.

Prof. Krotoszynski’s analysis centers on the Supreme Court’s Pickering/Connick line of cases and how poorly they protect government employee whistleblower speech. The cases afford First Amendment protection for speech related to matters of public concern, but not to speech related to matters of private concern. That narrows First Amendment protection significantly because the Court excludes “internal workplace management disputes” from matters of public concern. (P. 280.) Even attempts “to call attention to misconduct or inefficiency in government operations” may not be protected from firing if such speech causes workplace disruption. (P. 286.)

That can place the fate of a whistleblowing worker in the hands of disgruntled coworkers because “coworkers who behave badly in the wake of whistleblowing activity provide the government employer with a constitutionally acceptable predicate for firing the worker who called problems within the government agency to the attention of the body politic.” (P. 292.) That in turn significantly narrows the constitutional protection for important speech, making it less likely to be disclosed. The narrow protection is ironic given that government employees tend to be citizens who arguably have a civic duty to speak out about government mismanagement. As Prof. Krotoszynski notes, “[G]overnment employees should not be required to relinquish their right to speak more generally as citizens regarding matters of public concern as a consequence of working for a government employer.” (P. 275.)

Prof. Krotoszynski suggests the Court’s doctrine misses the point of protecting government whistleblower speech by focusing on the employee’s speech rights rather than on the value of the speech to the community. Whistleblower speech should be protected from retaliation because it “is not merely a private good, but also constitutes a public good, and First Amendment doctrine should reflect this fact.” (P. 298.) If the Court focused on the value of government employee whistleblower speech to the people, it likely would protect that speech more fulsomely.

To be clear, government employee whistleblower speech is not always unprotected, but those protections can be relatively weak. However, the uncertainty of the protection is problematic. The scope of whistleblower protection is unclear. Consequently, a whistleblower may not be able to discern whether her conduct is protected. As important, an employee who does not follow internal reporting processes and procedures when complaining will often be fired. (P. 298-99). Lastly, even if the conduct is protected, the whistleblower may not be fully protected from workplace retaliation. Unfortunately, the protection for whistleblower speech is insufficiently robust to encourage its full disclosure in every situation in which disclosure would be valuable.

Prof. Krotoszynski suggests that recognizing how public employee speech, the public’s need for information, and democratic accountability intersect is key. He argues the Court should recognize “an important First Amendment value in the context of government employee speech: the clear relationship of government employee speech to holding government accountable through the democratic process.” (P. 302.) If elections are to guarantee that proper officials are elected, voters must know how officials are performing in office. The most salient information about those issues may come from current government employees who have accurate information regarding “the areas in which the government’s efforts are falling short of the relevant mark.” (P. 300.) Those employees may also have information regarding which government officials are responsible for those shortcomings.  Insufficient protection for the dissemination of that information will inhibit its disclosure. That will lessen the opportunity for elections to ensure government functions properly.

Prof. Krotoszynski’s article makes the fairly simple, but powerful, point that the lack of First Amendment protection for important information about how government works will lead to less of that information being released to the public and to a less informed electorate. That point triggers another issue that is unexplored in the article. The type of information about government officials and the workings of government that the electorate needs to have to make good electoral decisions may also be known to non-governmental entities, such as government contractors, that work with government officials. Indeed, Prof. Krotoszynski notes that Edward Snowden’s disclosure of information was quite important to the public discourse about governmental actions. Nonetheless, for various reasons, Snowden has not been treated as or protected like a whistleblower.

The disclosure of some  information similar to what Snowden disclosed may be protected by whistleblower laws or general employment laws that limit terminations against public policy, but the information’s disclosure may often not be protected by the First Amendment or against retaliation.  When its disclosure is unprotected, information is not likely to be disclosed. That raises the same issues that the lack of disclosure by government employees raises. That may not strictly be a First Amendment issue, but it is nearly as troublesome as the issues this article raises.

Given the issues this article raises directly and those at which it merely hints, this article is a Thing I Like Lots.

Cite as: Henry L. Chambers, Jr., Failing to Protect Democracy by Failing to Protect Government Employee Whistleblower Speech, JOTWELL (April 1, 2020) (reviewing Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr., Whistleblowing Speech and the First Amendment, 93 Ind. L.J. 267 (2018)),

Avoidance Creep

Charlotte Garden, Avoidance Creep, __ U. Pa. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN

Professor Charlotte Garden already has a well-earned reputation as a leading scholar on the intersection of labor law and the First Amendment. This reputation will only be enhanced by her outstanding new article, Avoidance Creep. The article addresses a problem in labor law, and potentially other areas, involving the doctrine of “constitutional avoidance.” This doctrine provides that if one plausible reading of a statute would make its application violate the Constitution, but another plausible reading of the statute would not be unconstitutional if applied in that context, a court should, instead of ruling the statute unconstitutional, interpret the statute such that it does not violate the Constitution.

On its face, doctrine seems sensible. But Garden shows that it has been used to twist statutory language beyond its plain meaning and the intent of its drafters. Further, “avoidance creep” means that later courts amplify and magnify the original problems such that the interpretations are unmoored not only from statutory meaning and purpose but also from proper Constitutional analysis and from the defensible justifications for Constitutional avoidance. In her words, “avoidance decisions have tended to creep beyond their stated boundaries, as decision-makers either treat them as if they were constitutional precedent, or extend them into new statutory contexts while disregarding key aspects of their original reasoning.”

Garden’s examples of this phenomenon come from Supreme Court labor law cases people in the field know well: the recent Janus case barring agency fee agreements in the public sector is an endpoint. But en route, the article analyzes private-sector agency fee cases such as Hanson, Street, and Beck. The article also discusses DeBartolo Corp. and related cases involving union secondary activities and free speech rights. In these areas, she argues that avoidance creep has led to questionable constitutional interpretations (e.g., the idea that agency fee clauses implicate the First Amendment); causes courts to assume the basic constitutionality of what is actually highly problematic statutory language (e.g., bars on secondary activity); and shackles the NLRB’s ability to interpret key statutory terms (e.g., “coerced” in NLRA §8(b)(4)).

The article first discusses the Constitutional avoidance doctrine, its justifications, and criticisms of it. This section alone will likely be informative to work law scholars. Garden then shows how the doctrine was used in the foundational labor law cases noted above and uses her “avoidance creep” framework to show how later cases became increasingly removed from statutory text, coherent constitutional analysis, and the basic purpose of constitutional avoidance. She argues that constitutional avoidance has created two problems. First, after the original case, later courts wrongly assume a statutory provision would have been held unconstitutional had it been interpreted in a broader fashion. Second, future courts faced with a similar statutory provision assume their case should come out the same way as the original case that used constitutional avoidance, even if the later case actually presents no constitutional problem.

For example, Hanson, a private-sector RLA case, suggested (without holding) that some private-sector union practices might violate the First Amendment (e.g., disqualification from union membership (and therefore from employment) of workers who held certain political beliefs or associations), but Hanson did not suggest that what unions do with dues money they receive implicated First Amendment rights. Yet, five years later, Street, ostensibly following Hanson, implied that what unions did with dues created a real Constitutional issue. To avoid this alleged Constitutional issue – which again Hanson did not raise – Street held that had Congress wished to authorize union security clauses requiring full dues (a union shop), it would have had to say so absolutely explicitly. In short, avoidance creep prevented Street from using the normal tools of statutory interpretation. This, in turn, later led to a similar result in Beck for the NLRA, despite statutory language that (as the Beck dissent pointed out) clearly authorizes a union shop. It also led to both the Abood and Janus courts to assume – arguably wrongly and definitely without careful analysis –that what unions do with dues income implicates the First Amendment. Thus, Constitutional avoidance distorted both statutory interpretations in private-sector cases and Constitutional analysis in public-sector cases.

Avoidance creep created a separate problem in the area of secondary activities. In these cases, the Supreme Court has refused to strike down §8(b)(4) on First Amendment grounds. Instead, through Constitutional avoidance, the Court has placed limits on the reach of this section’s prohibitions. For example, DeBartolo distinguished between illegal secondary picketing and (apparently Constitutionally protected) legal secondary handbilling. The Court explained that handbilling is not “coercive” as the NLRA §8(b)(4) requires. Also, Tree Fruits’ held that “product picketing” (picketing a store that sells a product, where the picketing identifies the product and not the store as the object of the picketing) did not violate §8(b)(4), clearly due to constitutional concerns. Then came avoidance creep, as later courts got the holding of earlier decisions wrong. For example, Safeco wrongly asserted that Tree Fruits had actually upheld the Constitutionality of §8(b)(4), which it did not. Further, in this context, Garden argues that avoidance creep has robbed the NLRB of significant power to interpret terms such as “coerces,” since that is now a matter of Constitutional law. Most broadly, these decisions have wrongly insulated 8(b)(4) from a more complete Constitutional challenge.

A summary of this article could not do justice to the nuanced and thorough treatment Garden gives to cases and ideas. Throughout, her arguments shed revealing new light on important areas of labor law, Constitutional law, and Constitutional theory. Other articles and scholars have argued that the cases she discusses are inconsistent with First Amendment law in other areas. But this article is the first to attribute at least some of the major problems with these cases to recurring use of Constitutional avoidance, and the first to identify and describe the problem of avoidance creep. It is a remarkable achievement that this article says something about these cases that is both new and convincing. I liked it a lot.

Editor’s Note: Reviewers choose what to review without input from Section Editors. Worklaw Section Editor Charlotte Garden had no part in the editing of this article

Cite as: Joseph Slater, Avoidance Creep, JOTWELL (January 31, 2020) (reviewing Charlotte Garden, Avoidance Creep, __ U. Pa. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN.  ),

What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander, Or Is It? The Pitfalls of Using The Court’s Neoliberal Construction of the First Amendment To Protect Secondary Picketing

Richard Blum, Labor Picketing, The Right To Protest, and the Neoliberal First Amendment, 42 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 595 (2019).

In his article, Labor Picketing, The Right To Protest, and the Neoliberal First Amendment, Professor Blum argues that labor picketing, which has received diminished protection when viewed from the statutory lens of Section 8(b)(4) of the National Labor Relations Act, would receive greater protection if viewed primarily through a constitutional lens. Blum upfront acknowledges that many scholars—notably Cynthia Estlund, Catherine Fisk, Charlotte Garden, Michael Harper, James Gray Pope, and Mark Schneider—as well as several practitioners have made similar arguments. (P. 600, n. 14.) However, he brings a fresh approach to this important legal agenda by framing the problem not only as a legal challenge but also from the union lawyers’ perspective, which he obtained through surveys and interviews. (Pp. 611–16.)

As a legal matter, Blum correctly notes that the halcyon days of labor picketing protection passed nearly eighty years ago when the Supreme Court, in Thornhill v. Alabama, held that the state’s power to regulate labor picketing was limited by the First Amendment’s free speech clause. But what the Justices giveth, the Justices may taketh away. Thus, labor picketing could lose its constitutional protection: (1) if accompanied by violence, Milk Wagon Drivers Union of Chicago, Local 753 v. Meadowmoor Dairies, Inc.; (2) if the speech targeted a neutral party, Carpenters and Joiners Union of Am., Local No. 213 v. Ritter’s Cafe; or (3) if the picketing had unlawful objectives, Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co. During this time, the Court also began to view labor picketing as inherently involving conduct as well as speech, and therefore subject to greater state regulation for that reason too.1 Indeed, by the time the Supreme Court penned Int’l Bhd of Teamsters, Local 695 v. Vogt, the transformation of labor picketing to activity benefitting from less than full constitutional protection was nearly complete.

As the surveyed union attorneys see it, the problem is multifaceted although it generally boils down to the fact that the rules governing secondary activity are incoherent. This makes it difficult and time consuming to train union members on the dos and don’ts of labor picketing. The abstruseness also undermines the ability of rank-and-file employees to act concertedly. Indeed, Board investigators, among the most knowledgeable labor experts, themselves often misunderstand the law and often presume that secondary picketing is unlawful even when it is not. These factors, together with an outmoded and incorrect belief that all labor picketing is coercive, chills and limits secondary activity. (Pp. 613–14.)

Blum next summarizes how legal prohibitions on secondary activity butt up against the First Amendment:

[N]ormally, as long as a group’s self-expression, including picketing, does not coerce the people they confront through violence . . ., the First Amendment protects that expression. There is no basis for treating secondary labor picketing, a form of union self-expression, any differently from any other kind of picketing, whether the target is primary, secondary, or both . . . . Like other forms of picketing, labor picketing is not inherently coercive of its audience, and any coercion by picketers should, under the First Amendment, be addressed through narrowly tailored restrictions. (Pp. 616–17.)

From here, Blum turns to recent developments in First Amendment jurisprudence, agreeing with scholars that decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc. facilitate the analysis that the NLRA’s ban on secondary picketing is unconstitutional. (P. 631.) Nevertheless, Blum warns unions against buying into this Court’s neoliberal construction of the First Amendment:

It is fair enough to say that what is good for the goose, in this case, corporate and/or commercial speech, is good for the gander, i.e., labor speech. However, it would be a strategic error for labor to rely on these decisions in seeking to strike that ban under the First Amendment. Although the distinction between political and economic speech cannot be sustained, the First Amendment distinction between social movement, including labor, speech on the one hand and profit-motivated speech on the other can and should be sustained and breaking down that distinction has undesirable consequences for the labor movement and its constituents. (Pp. 638–39.)

Here, Blum offers three reasons unions should resist the temptation of relying on commercial or corporate speech decisions to extend greater protections to secondary boycott activity. First, the distinction between labor and commercial speech is “valid” because “[t]here is an essential difference between speech that proposes a commercial transaction in the marketplace and speech that defies market logic by insisting that human labor not be treated simply as a commodity.” (P. 639.) Second, the Court has never characterized labor speech as commercial speech and has, indeed, treated the two categories of speech very differently. (P. 642.) The distinguishing features of these two categories of speech “demonstrate why there are compelling societal interests, rooted in knowledge and power differentials, in regulating commercial and corporate speech that do not apply to other kinds of speech.” (P. 639.)  In Blum’s view, “[u]nions should advance those compelling interests and defend the state’s regulatory authority, both to protect the state’s ability to regulate labor relations and to defend regulatory systems that protect unions’ members and broader constituencies.” Id. Third, labor does not need to rely on these decisions because other avenues of First Amendment protection are available. Id.

This article continues the important debate on how the law should treat worker self-expression. Labor advocates for more than a century have advocated for treating workers as humans who possess dignity rather than as factors of production. The law’s dignification of workers was short-lived and coincided with New Deal legislation.  With the rise of the neoliberal paradigm of the late twentieth century and its law-and-economics judicial framework, the law returned to a labor-as-commodity lens. Accordingly, it is tempting to engage in a can’t-beat-them-join-them strategy as commercial and corporate speech has gained increasingly robust constitutional protection.  However, as Blum points out, that strategy is inauthentic and sells out the worker qua human. Buying into this paradigm is dangerous because it transgresses every human rights value for which labor advocates have fought in exchange for a possible short-term gain.  Blum’s vision allows for transformational change, rejecting the incremental breadcrumbs that Citizens United and Sorrell offer. Once those crumbs are accepted, labor is cabined. Workers, as humans who possess human rights deserve more than crumbs. Blum reminds us that our duty, as labor advocates, is to transform that neoliberal paradigm to one that treats workers with the human dignity that justly deserve.

  1. See Bakery and Pastry Drivers and Helpers, Local 802 v. Wohl (Douglas, J., concurring).
Cite as: Anne Marie Lofaso, What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander, Or Is It? The Pitfalls of Using The Court’s Neoliberal Construction of the First Amendment To Protect Secondary Picketing, JOTWELL (December 13, 2019) (reviewing Richard Blum, Labor Picketing, The Right To Protest, and the Neoliberal First Amendment, 42 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 595 (2019)),

Ghosts in the Shell

Our understanding of work and workers is significantly enriched by immersive accounts of particular occupations and the people in them. Books like Studs Terkel’s Working, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and John Bowe’s Nobodies offer powerful narratives of day-to-day hopes, struggles, and indignities of workers in particular industries and milieu. The rhythms of the gig economy are unfamiliar to those in more traditional workplaces, and we are fortunate to have insightful new perspectives on these jobs: Alex Rosenblat on ride-sharing drivers; Karen Levy on truck drivers with electronic logging devices; and Casey Newton on social media content moderators. Add to this list perhaps the most mysterious, hidden form of new labor in our wired economy: the piecemeal “microwork” that facilitates online algorithmic processing.

In Ghost Work, anthropologist Mary Gray and computational social scientist Siddharth Suri—both researchers at Microsoft—have accomplished a deep dive into the world of these online crowdworkers. Although Gray and Suri at times include all sorts of platform workers within their definition, the true heart of the term “ghost work” applies to unseen AI support staffers who provide vital components of human judgment within an overall computational algorithm. As Ghost Work makes clear, key leaps in artificial intelligence capability have been possible only with an army of facilitators who make decisions such as what a camelback couch looks like, whether a face matches an ID picture, or how a slang term is used. Unlike the popular conception of indomitable machines churning through data unaided, most machine learning systems still incorporate significant human decision-making for the “last mile” of AI functionality. These are the people who make those decisions.

Gray and Suri masterfully present these workers, their jobs, the reasons they do them, and their workplace struggles. Drawing from a five-year study with over 200 interviews and tens of thousands of survey responses, the book illuminates the lives of these workers who huddle in front of their screens fielding on-demand requests. The work is performed through application programming interfaces (APIs) that present an onslaught of opportunities, each paying small fees for a completed task. The research team focused on workers at four different machine-learning platforms: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Microsoft’s internal Universal Human Relevance System, sales facilitator LeadGenius, and translation site Amara. We meet workers on these platforms, living in the United States and India, who participate with varying degrees of commitment and success in these platforms’ daily churn.

According to Gray and Suri’s research, these on-demand platform workers do not follow a uniform pattern of engagement. Rather, they break down into three categories: new and experimental workers, who are just trying the site and may never return; consistent workers, who regularly participate on the platform for at least some period of time; and the high-performers who work full-time or more and are responsible for most of the work that actually gets done. (P. 103.) And through individualized vignettes, we learn about these workers’ approach to “ghost” work: Zaffar, a young Muslim man in Hyderabad who can deftly ferret out promising opportunities for LeadGenius; Kumuda, a Hindu mother who has become the highest earner in her Indian town through Mechanical Turk; and Joan, who judges whether pictures match their textual description while caring for her ailing mother in Houston.

Ghost Work highlights the advantages of these jobs: flexibility to work at home and on an irregular schedule; the ability to experiment with different types of tasks and skills; and the hidden nature of one’s sex, race, nationality, or disability, so as to avoid discrimination. At the same time, however, the authors demonstrate the precarity of this work, and the potential for the infliction of “algorithmic cruelty.” Ghost workers spend much of their time searching for tasks and vetting the providers without compensation; they train themselves and manage their reputations while hoping not to violate the providers’ unwritten norms and rules; and they may be fired or fail to receive payment through automated decisions that cannot be appealed. Paired with the dehumanization of these isolated and fragmented tasks, the proliferation of ghost work ultimately seems overwhelming and demoralizing.

In the book’s conclusion, Gray and Suri offer a series of reforms designed to render ghost work sustainable. These include: facilitating collaboration and communication among platform workers; allowing workers to take their reputation and experience data to other platforms and positions; providing for a “good work code” across platforms and users; and installing a safety net either through publicly-provided benefits or a universal basic income. Two proposed fixes are of special interest to labor and employment law academics: changing the definition of employment, and using unions or quasi-unions to match workers with jobs and to resolve grievances, especially regarding pay. The authors are vague about the new employment classification, other than specifying it should not focus on full-time work. This superficiality is frustrating. And the book’s history of contingent work has some puzzling assertions: for example, it implies that NLRB v. Hearst Publications and the Taft-Hartley Act related to the definition of employment under the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Pp. 49-50.)  This muddle is a shame; the FLSA’s use of “suffer or permit to work” would have provided a nice starting point for a more robust discussion of the legal definition(s) of employment.

Despite Ghost Work’s in-depth descriptions of the travails of this contingent and neglected workforce, Gray and Suri leave room for hope as well. They do not think that AI will engulf human labor; instead, people will always be necessary to produce appropriate and meaningful results. And even within their atomized employment, ghost workers have still found the opportunity to talk with each other about their jobs, collaborate on tasks, and help new workers find their way. The problems of ghost work are neither intractable nor inevitable. By educating us on this largely hidden labor pool, Gray and Suri have opened up a conversation about how best to structure these jobs, and how to promote human flourishing for everyone on these platforms.

Cite as: Matt Bodie, Ghosts in the Shell, JOTWELL (November 25, 2019) (reviewing Mary L. Gray & Siddharth Suri, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass (2019)),

Crowdsourcing Plain Meaning

James A. Macleod, Ordinary Causation: A Study in Experimental Statutory Interpretation, 94 Ind. L.J. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN.

Employment discrimination doctrine is a mess, and one of the messiest parts concerns causation. Problems with causation have been the focal point of many articles in recent years, often in response to the “tortification” of employment discrimination law. You might think that there is nothing more to say, and that we’re just stuck with the mess. But James Macleod’s article, Ordinary Causation: A Study in Experimental Statutory Interpretation has persuaded me that neither is true.

In this article, Professor Macleod breathes fresh life into interpretation of Title VII by using the  tools of experimental philosophy to explore the meaning of “because of” and other statutory causal language. What better way to determine the ordinary public meaning of a phrase, particularly a phrase in context, than to survey a representative sample of the population, ask whether a particular result was because of the reason described in the statute, and then share that information publicly? Professor Macleod did just that, and his article makes a case for this approach and then reports on his results.

The paper’s first two sections summarize familiar ground. Part I analyzes recent case law on statutory causation, and Part II summarizes why courts are properly concerned about ordinary meaning in legal interpretation. Recent years have seen significant decisions interpreting causal language in statutes. Two of these cases are employment discrimination cases: Gross v. FBL Financial Services, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, under Title VII’s retaliation provision. In both cases, the Court held that the plain meaning of “because of” required plaintiffs to prove that an improper motive was a but-for cause of the adverse employment actions they suffered.

The Court’s own view is that that its job is to find the plain meaning of the statutory language. Professor Macleod agrees, arguing that this search for plain meaning is particularly appropriate for concepts like causation, which are core common law concepts and embody a sense of moral wrong. But Parts III and IV, which form the core of the paper, draw out the weaknesses of judges’ methodology for finding plain meaning, as well as explaining the benefits of the survey experiment method.

In Part III, Professor Macleod makes a persuasive case for the weakness of judges’ current methodology. Judges generally rely on introspection, hypothetical test situations (called intuition pumps), and dictionaries. Introspection is a poor tool because judges, like any of us, are subject to cognitive biases like motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. Because different hypotheticals, or intuition pumps, can point to different conclusions, judges may discount those that don’t match their initial intuition. This is simply another way that motivated reasoning and confirmation bias limit the power of individual reasoning. And dictionaries, though external, cannot use terms in context, which is often indispensable for understanding how language actually operates. Moreover, dictionaries often provide so many alternative meanings that a judge must pick from among them, often in ways that confirm initial intuitions. Confounding the operation of these biases, Professor Macleod notes, individuals are overconfident in their intuitions. We tend to think that we are representative of the population at large, even when we are wrong about what most people would think.

Part IV then explains the survey experiment method of finding plain meaning in context, which is already being used in litigation. Professor Macleod makes the case for why it is an improvement over other methods and reports the results of his own survey experiment: that courts have often reached the wrong outcomes about causation.

The key intuition underlying this approach is so straightforward, it almost seems too easy: “to find public meaning, ask the public.” But framing an experiment to discern that meaning is no easy task. Professor Macleod conducted a nationally representative survey of nearly 1500 jury-eligible lay people. Participants were randomly assigned to read a short vignette modeled on one of the cases the Court had adopted a but-for approach in. They were then asked about the cause of the result. In one vignette modeled on Gross, for example, participants were asked whether the protagonist terminated the employee “because of” the employee’s age in a situation where age and one other reason could have caused the outcome. Each vignette had four variations (participants were randomly assigned to which option they answered), in which the improper reason was necessary and sufficient, necessary but insufficient, unnecessary but sufficient, or unnecessary and insufficient. In this way, Professor Macleod was able to discern the public’s understanding of when someone is fired “because of” an improper reason.

The study found, essentially, six things. First, a sizeable majority of respondents found causation present in situations where but-for cause was absent–in fact even where independent sufficiency was also absent. Second, sufficiency’s presence or absence played a much larger role in responses than the presence or absence of but-for causation. Third, the substantial factor test seemed to be what a large majority of participants interpreted the statutory language to require. Fourth, the moral preferences of participants followed sufficiency rather than but-for causation. Fifth, participants in the minority were just as confident that their interpretation was the only right one as were participants in the majority. And Sixth, the results were responsive to small differences in changes of causal language even in highly blameworthy contexts, showing that language mattered. As a result of these findings, Professor Macleod concluded that courts have incorrectly interpreted the plain mean of “because of” as requiring but-for causation. Instead, “because of” pretty plainly means “substantial factor” to the overwhelming majority of people.

Professor Macleod acknowledges the limitations to this approach to statutory interpretation in some contexts. For example, survey experiments can test current usage and concepts, but not historical ones. So where the meaning of terms has changed significantly over time, say, for example, what sex or race are, this approach to discerning meaning may be less appealing to courts.

Professor Macleod has written an engaging article with far-reaching implications. In fact, I am already trying to think of ways to use his approach to better teach my courses. I look forward to more work by Professor Macleod in this area.

Cite as: Marcia L. McCormick, Crowdsourcing Plain Meaning, JOTWELL (November 4, 2019) (reviewing James A. Macleod, Ordinary Causation: A Study in Experimental Statutory Interpretation, 94 Ind. L.J. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN),

Dissolving Bonds

Orly Lobel, Gentlemen Prefer Bonds: How Employers Fix the Talent Market, Santa Clara L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

Professor Lobel begins by analyzing the various mechanisms by which employers diminish their workers’ options—and thus limit worker bargaining power for better compensation and benefits—by circumscribing their post-employment freedom of action. Of course, formal noncompetes are old news (even as a number of jurisdictions are taking steps to rein them in), and the use of horizontal wage-fixing and no-poaching agreements has gotten the renewed attention of the antitrust folk. But Lobel reminds us that employers can be incredibly creative in attempting to limit the mobility of their workers. Thus, she identifies restraints in the franchise setting and among sports and other associations. For example, class actions are pending against a range of fast food franchises whose agreements bar one franchisee from hiring another’s employees. She also stresses that customer nonsolicitation clauses can often be as effective as formal noncompetes since it may well be impossible to compete in a given geographic area without soliciting your former employer’s customers. Similarly, nondisclosure agreements are often drafted to protect far more information than trade secret law would reach, and “holdover” clauses— giving an employer the right to a former employee’s inventions made after the employment has terminated—reduce the value of creative workers to prospective new employers.

The effect of these and other “mobility penalties” is to decrease employee options, which not only restrains workers from taking higher paid jobs with competitors but thereby also reduces their bargaining power with their current employer. Needless to say, reducing competition among employers tends to depress compensation. On a macro level, Professor Lobel argues that these kinds of competition-dampening mechanisms may be partly to blame for the failure of wages to keep up with improving economic conditions and thus contribute to growing income inequality. Even more interestingly, she explores the effects of such employer tactics to lower wages on certain groups, most saliently the perpetuation of the gender gap in compensation. For a variety of reasons (“the need to coordinate dual careers, family geographic ties, and job market re-entry after family leave” (P. 18)),women are less mobile than men. That means that artificial restraints are likely to have disproportionately adverse effects on them since an already limited range of choices is further narrowed, perhaps to zero. Similar points can be made about older workers and minorities. While wages tend to be depressed for all workers by agreements that limit their ability to vote with their feet, some groups are more likely than others to suffer worse consequences.

The last part of Lobel’s article surveys possible solutions. Most of the current reform efforts rely on declaring certain varieties of restraints to be against public policy, but Gentlemen Prefer Bonds argues that such “defensive voidance” is inadequate. One more proactive approach would require employers to give “advance notice” that a job offer will entail a restrictive covenant. This is Jotwell, so I’ll agree that this would be helpful in some subset of cases, but I am unconvinced that it would change the landscape substantially. True, any given employee, having left her prior position, wouldn’t be faced with the Hobson’s choice of signing or quitting. But such a requirement would result in substantially fewer mobility restrictions only if employers generally began to compete on this aspect of employment, and all the reasons that led us to where we are suggest reason for pessimism on this point.

Professor Lobel also urges a requirement that employers inform workers of their right to mobility. Where there is such a right (California, mostly, but, for at least some classes of workers, other states also), such a requirement would tend to overcome the in terrorem effect of clauses that, if litigated, would be held unenforceable. But any such rule would, in turn, have to entail meaningful sanctions since employers who currently ignore the law in requiring workers to sign unenforceable agreements are not likely to comply with a notice requirement without substantial motivations sanctions. The MOVE bill she cites, which is currently before Congress (and bars noncompetes for “lower-wage workers” and requires advance notice for such agreements for other employees), provides for $5000 fines for each employee, which should get employer attention should it or similar measures be passed at the state level.

Lobel also urges the use of class actions to challenge sweeping restraints, but that is a tactic that will prevail only for those workers whose employers have not required mandatory individual arbitration.

The most theoretically promising but perhaps the least likely solution at least in the short run is more robust regulatory action such as a proposed FTC rule (Professor Lobel was involved in a pending petition) to ban noncompetes as “unfair methods of competition” under section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Such a dramatic proposal at least has the benefit of shifting the discussion from individual unfairness or overreaching (bad as that can sometimes be) to the broader economic effects of the constellation of practices she identifies.

Even more so than usual, a “jot” such as this can only scratch the surface of the piece it is reviewing and Lobel’s article is required reading for those concerned about competition in the labor markets and the concomitant effects on economic welfare of workers.

Cite as: Charles A. Sullivan, Dissolving Bonds, JOTWELL (October 2, 2019) (reviewing Orly Lobel, Gentlemen Prefer Bonds: How Employers Fix the Talent Market, Santa Clara L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN),

Competing Interests and Best Practices in the Wake of #Metoo

Rachel Arnow-Richman, Of Power and Process: Handling Harassers in an At-Will World, 128 Yale L.J. Forum 85 (2018).

One of my favorite pieces published in labor and employment law this year is Rachel Arnow-Richman’s Of Power and Process: Handling Harassers in an At-Will World, which is a not-to-be-missed call for an overhaul of the contracting practices deployed by employers, one designed to shift the calculus that employers use to police sexual harassers of various corporate ranks. This piece examines a rarely thought-about angle of the #Metoo movement and the changes that it has precipitated and is yet to still effect. Professor Arnow-Richman, a scholar in employment law and in contract law, exposes this angle thoughtfully and sets forth a laudable proposal.

Professor Arnow-Richman’s starting point is, appropriately, as she puts it, the “extreme power imbalance in the workplace” that engenders “a world in which high-level decision-makers wield unrestricted control over employees,” while the entity can turn a blind eye to the way in which this unfettered discretion may be abused. (P. 90.) Lower-level employees are not accorded such latitude, and they are typically expeditiously disciplined or otherwise dealt with in the face of their inappropriate behavior. The #MeToo Movement, Professor Arnow-Richman correctly points out, was the force that kicked up a lot of the dust that enabled us to see just how uneven this landscape has been. Specifically, she argues that as society begins to grapple with balancing aggressive policing of workplace harassment with ensuring that accused harassers are accorded fair treatment (rather than summary and automatic dismissal), it needs to address inequities among workers at different ranks in the workplace. Moreover, she notes, misconceived corporate responses have companies punishing sexualized actions, rather than policing sex-based harassment that is not sexual in nature. Having astutely pointed out that “employers are inclined to tolerate sexual harassment and other misconduct by top-level employees but aggressively police ‘inappropriate’ behavior by the rank-and-file” (P. 85), Professor Arnow-Richman then sets out to address this problem.

This piece is both important and timely. After decades upon decades of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault being covered up and shrouded in silence, the #Metoo movement is finally starting to bring light to these events—and real consequences to their perpetrators. However, with these actions has come an accompanying backlash, as accused men bemoan what they perceive as knee-jerk justice and a lack of process in their swift ousters. Celebrating the unearthing and remedying of abuse that has been kept underground for so long, while simultaneously navigating the legal landscape as complicated by the backlash is a contemporary issue of great proportion.

Recently, much attention has been paid by scholars and other legal observers to the disparity between the way in which high and low-level accusers are treated by their employers and by the law. The acknowledgment that high level and highly-valued accusers operate with a certain amount of privilege, whereas low-level employee accusers are more vulnerable to being disbelieved or retaliated against is not surprising. However, Professor Arnow-Richman examines the status of the accused with an eye toward their vulnerabilities, rather than just toward whatever privilege they enjoy. Professor Arnow-Richman astutely notes that low-level employees alleged to be sexual harassers or abusers, “share with their accusers a vulnerability to indiscriminate adverse action by those above them in the workplace hierarchy.” She posits that “[t]he very dynamics that make workers susceptible to sexual harassment in the first place put them at risk of excessive disciplinary action in the face of sexual harassment allegations,” and cautions that “in the #MeToo-inspired race to root out inappropriate sexualized behavior, workers with less power, engaged in less pernicious behavior, are likely to be swept up in the rush to judgment.” (Pp. 91-92.)

By getting into the details of the multitude of contractual benefits and protections enjoyed by these “top-level’ employees, professor Arnow-Richman is able to examine precisely how and by how much they fare better than lower-level employees when they are accused of sexual harassment. Job security and for-cause provisions are true game-changers, since employers do not want to incur liability as they respond to allegations of harassment or abuse. Lower-level employees, on the other hand, generally lack written contracts at all and can be summarily discharged at will. As Professor Arnow-Richman puts it, “In other words, if employers wish to cleanly remove high-level employees based on sexual harassment, they better be right about what happened.” (P. 93.)

The piece’s illustrative examples are rich and informative. It discusses, for example, the fact that Harvey Weinstein’s contract was crafted not merely to require that he be convicted of a crime or fraud in order for the “cause” standard to be met, but the fact that his prospective wrongdoings were explicitly contemplated by his contract’s language, which “not only created a safe harbor for Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, it anticipated and condoned an ongoing pattern of misbehavior, as long as Weinstein was willing to pay for the privilege.” (P. 95.) Given these extraordinary contractual protections, the reader gets a really clear idea of just what employers and accusers are up against in the face of alleged abuse by him and others like him at the highest levels of employment.

In stark contrast, the piece notes, the so-called “powerless harasser” affords his employer “every incentive to hedge against the risk of sexual harassment liability,” by getting rid of him, and this engenders gross disparities in the way in which these individuals are treated versus their higher-level counterparts. (Pp. 95-96.) This is true whether or not the allegation is ultimately proven to be true, because “[t]erminating an accused harasser is a surefire way of satisfying this element of the defense [to sexual harassment under Title VII],”and “[i]n cases of uncertainty, as when the employer is unable to verify whether harassing conduct occurred, it is safer for employers to err on the side of punishing the accused.” (P. 96.)

Of particular value in this piece is Professor Arnow-Richman’s informing her analysis and observations with her own experience reviewing labor arbitration awards. In her view, a legal backdrop against which employees at private workplaces have no actual Due Process rights and are owed nothing beyond what a contract might say encourages the enforcement of a “broad, antisexual norm against vulnerable workers” by employers. (P. 97.) Her analysis of labor awards bolsters her contention that employers are prone to “engage in overzealous disciplinary action in response to behavior that relates to or invokes sex or sexuality.” (p. 98.) So what is the law to do with the disparity in discipline and consequences that inures to the benefit of the top-level worker over the rank-and-file worker?

The piece concludes that increased job security and a greater ability to influence workplace terms and conditions would help redress this disparity. It calls for consideration of how this might be accomplished short of an overhaul of at-will employment, noting that “[t]he time is ripe for proposals.” (P. 100.) Professor Arnow-Richman answers her call with some thoughtful and provocative proposals of her own, all of which are worthy of consideration. Among them are employers: 1) continuing to create accountability for harassers at all levels of employment; 2) developing counter incentives to sexual harassment; 3) evaluating “wrongdoing with an informed understanding of what sexual harassment is and why it is harmful;” and 4) deliberately refraining from dealing with offensive statements in the same manner in which they deal with physical behavior that is repetitive or unwelcome.

Professor Arnow-Richman’s expertise in the fields of contracts, labor law, and employment discrimination well situate her to think through the problems created by the #Metoo movement and its subsequent backlash. This piece is thought-provoking, well-illustrated, and something that I found to be an excellent read this year.

Cite as: Kerri Lynn Stone, Competing Interests and Best Practices in the Wake of #Metoo, JOTWELL (September 6, 2019) (reviewing Rachel Arnow-Richman, Of Power and Process: Handling Harassers in an At-Will World, 128 Yale L.J. Forum 85 (2018)),

Coercion in Labor Law: A Fresh Perspective

Michael M. Oswalt, The Content of Coercion, 52 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1585 (2019).

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers and labor organizations from coercing others in several respects. Section 8(a) (1) prohibits employers from coercing employees with respect to their right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection and to refrain from such activity. Section 8(b)(1)(A) prohibits labor organizations similarly and Section 8(b)(4) prohibits labor organizations from coercing any person with one of four prohibited objects, the most significant being forcing that person to cease doing business with another person, i.e. engage in a secondary boycott. But the NLRA does not define coercion and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and courts have made mostly intuitive judgments about what is coercive. In The Content of Coercion, Michael Oswalt seeks a path to an empirical basis for analyzing whether employer or labor organization conduct is coercive. Although I disagree with several of Oswalt’s conclusions for labor law doctrine, I admire this work for its path-breaking analysis.

Oswalt observes that the NLRA began as the union-supportive Wagner Act but was counterbalanced by the employer-friendly Taft-Hartley amendments. The result was a “fundamentally hybridized statute that protects the right to freely choose [whether to organize] as it also defends the right to freely meddle [in that choice], setting the stage for a conundrum that has haunted labor law ever since: how much free speech is too much for free choice?” (P. 1592.) The answer is when speech becomes coercive because coercion overcomes rational decision making. But, lacking a definition of coercion, the NLRB has resorted to analytical shortcuts. Threats over which a party has control are coercive but predictions of what could happen, absent other unfair labor practices, are not. Picketing is coercive but hand-billing is not.

In his quest for a more empirically-based approach to determining whether speech or conduct is coercive in labor law, Oswalt turns to the expanding study of the role emotions play in decision making. He provides a very useful account of the developing scholarship in the field and then applies it to labor law. He avers that the emotion most important in analyzing coercion in labor law is fear and urges that fear in the workplace is inherent in the employer’s authority over all employees. A prime antidote to fear, however, is a feeling of control. From this, Oswalt derives a two-step approach to determining the presence of coercion. First, there must be a showing that the “whoever was allegedly coerced credibly feared something relevant to the Act’s prohibitions.” (Pp. 1642-43.) The second inquiry is how much control did the allegedly coerced persons or parties have? Applying this approach to employer anti-union statements and actions, Oswalt finds that “every instance of employer anti-unionism is likely to be considered coercive because in the workplace, employees’ fear derives from employer authority and in an at-will environment employees have no control,” i.e. they must obey or risk their jobs. (P. 1647.) Oswalt realizes that finding every employer missive to be coercive “is not going to happen.” (P. 1648.) Indeed, it flies in the face of NLRA Section 8(c) which protects employer speech that contain “no threat of reprisal or threat or promise of benefit.” But he offers one area of employer conduct where his approach can change current doctrine without running afoul of statutory language. Oswalt argues that employer requirements that employees listen to employer anti-union messages either in one-on-one meetings with supervisors or in large scale captive audience presentations are prima facie coercive under his two-step analysis because employees will have credible fears of adverse consequences if they disobey or fail to heed the message. To counter this, at step two of his analysis, Oswalt argues the NLRB should require employers to give employees a right to opt out of such meetings, thereby providing employees with a sense of control that will serve as an antidote to their fear.

Turning to allegations of union coercion of employees, typically with respect to employees’ rights to refrain from union activity, Oswalt uses his two-step approach as a vehicle for distinguishing between illegal threats of violence and lawful threats of social ostracization. He then examines secondary boycotts and urges that picketing is not necessarily scary and should not be considered coercive per se. Rather, he would require the moving party to produce evidence that bystanders, customers or employees were credibly afraid of the picketing. That would move the analysis to step two, which is to ask whether the fear was necessarily uncontrollable or whether there were reasonable alternatives available to the allegedly coerced party, such as ignoring the picketers or other demonstrators or walking around them or, for a neutral employer, waiting for the demonstrators to leave.

Oswalt’s work raises many questions and is open to disagreement. For example, under current NLRA doctrine, giving employees a right to opt out is often not a defense to charges of coercing their exercise of their right to engage in union activities. For example, an employer may not directly ask employees to participate in an anti-union video even if it assures them that they may decline. Doing so is considered tantamount to an illegal poll of employees. Instead, the employer may only post a general invitation to employees to participate and wait for some to opt in. Should this approach be reconsidered in light of Oswalt’s analysis that an option not to participate instills a sense of control that serves as an antidote to a sense of fear, or does the existing doctrine undermine Oswalt’s basic analysis?

Oswalt urges that credible fear inherent in everything an employer says and does and employees lack a sense of control unless the employer provides it. But does this hold as universally as Oswalt suggests? What about during times of labor shortages? What about workers with skills that are in high demand? What about jobs that require considerable time in training and experience before new hires operate efficiently?

How, if at all, should the analysis apply to pro-union statements by an employer? Under current doctrine, such statements are lawful when phrased as statements of neutrality, such as, “the employer has a positive relationship with the union and is not opposed to you selecting the union as your bargaining representative.” Does the two-step analysis call such doctrine into question?

Oswalt’s analysis also raises questions with respect to union coercion of dissenting or reluctant employees. Why should we distinguish between instilling fear of physical violence from fear of being socially ostracized? Does the evolving science of human emotions support or counsel against that distinction?

With respect to secondary boycotts, the allegedly coerced neutral is not the consumer or employees but the neutral business. Although consumers might ignore a picket or demonstration in front of a retailer, the retailer cannot control the consumers’ reactions. How does this factor into the two-step analysis? And, under current doctrine, a union picketing a product produced by an employer against whom the union is on strike does not engage in a secondary boycott even when that picketing is at the consumer entrances to a neutral retailer. This is so as long as the union confines its boycott call to the struck product and the struck product does not comprise the overwhelming majority of the retailer’s offerings. Should this doctrine be reconsidered in light of the developing science of emotions? For example, might the retailer have a credible fear of the picketing even if it is confined to the struck product?

The above questions demonstrate why I question some of Oswalt’s analysis but still admire the work. He has provided a fresh and potentially compelling approach to assessing coercion as prohibited by the NLRA. It is an approach that scholars, the NLRB, and courts should not ignore.

Cite as: Martin H. Malin, Coercion in Labor Law: A Fresh Perspective, JOTWELL (July 22, 2019) (reviewing Michael M. Oswalt, The Content of Coercion, 52 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1585 (2019)),