United States District Court in Texas has refused to dismiss a law suit challenging OSHA’s practice of allowing union representatives and organizers to serve as “employee representatives” in inspections of non-union worksites. If the Court ultimately sustains the plaintiff’s claims, unions will lose another often valuable organizing tool that has provided them with visibility and access to employees in connection with organizing campaigns.
The National Federation of Independent Business (‘NFIB”) filed suit to challenge an OSHA Standard Interpretation Letter (the “Letter”), which sets forth the agency’s position that an employee of a union that does not represent the workers at the site may accompany the OSHA representative conducting an inspection. The Federation argued on behalf of itself and one of its members because OSHA had permitted a representative of the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) to accompany him despite the fact the SEIU did not represent the workers at the facility. The lawsuit asserts that in allowing this, OSHA had violated its own rules and gave the union rights that it did not have under the law. In the Letter, issued in February 2013, OSHA gave a new definition of “reasonably necessary,” which supported its holding, for the first time, that a third party’s presence would be deemed “reasonably necessary,” if OSHA concluded that the presence of the third party “will make a positive contribution” to an effective inspection. The NFIB’s lawsuit contradicted both the OSHA statute itself and OSHA regulations issued in 1971 following formal rulemaking.
While OSHA asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the NFIB lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because it could not demonstrate that it had been harmed, and that the lawsuit was procedurally flawed for a number of other reasons as well, Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater denied the U.S. Department of Labor’s Motion to Dismiss, finding that “NFIB as stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the Letter flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “ must himself be an employee.”
The rule Judge Fitzwater referred to, 29 U.S.C Section 1903.8(c) contained OSHA’s policies for what are referred to as “safety walk-arounds,” which are on site workplace inspections. The Letter gives employees in the workplace the right to have a representative present during such an inspection. OSHA’s own rules make clear that such “authorized representative(s) shall be an employee(s) of the employer,” but that when “good cause is shown why accompaniment by a third party who is not an employee of the employer (such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer) is reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace, such third party may accompany the Compliance Safety and Health Officer during the inspection.” (emphasis added)
If the ultimate outcome of the case, which seems likely, is a finding that OSHA does not have the authority to permit union representatives to participate in OSHA inspections of workplaces where they do not represent the workers, the effect would be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.
While it is too soon to say whether the Department of Labor will continue to defend the 2013 Letter and the position that OSHA has the right to permit union representatives to participate in safety and health inspections, Judge Fitzwater’s denial of the motion to dismiss raises serious doubt as to the long term viability of OSHA’s position.