WASHINGTON - In a victory for unions, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Thursday that employees can use their company e-mail accounts for union organizing and other workplace-related purposes, if they do it on their own time.
Once an employer gives an employee access to the company e-mail system, then the business cannot restrict what the employee e-mails, so long as it is generally workplace-related and isn't during working hours, the NLRB ruled.
The NLRB is a government agency that investigates unfair labor practices.
The ruling said that "the use of e-mail as a common form of workplace communications has expanded dramatically in recent years."
The ruling could give unions a powerful organizing weapon.
The three Democrats on the five-member board voted "yes," while the two Republicans abstained.
The ruling reverses a 2007 board decision that employees don't have a legal right to use their employers' e-mail for union activity or discussing wages or other workplace issues.
It also upholds an opinion by the NLRB's general counsel, who suggested that workers had a presumed statutory right to use company e-mail to discuss a range of workplace issues - so long as they did it on their own time and unless an employer could demonstrate that doing so would hurt productivity or office discipline.
The decision was a victory for the Communications Workers of America, which brought the case in 2012 after it was unable to use company e-mail to organize employees of Purple Communications in Rocklin, Calif., a company that provides interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing. The union contended that prohibiting Purple workers from using company e-mail to organize interfered with its efforts.
Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA and a vice president of the Communications Workers of America, called the ruling "a big victory for workers in general."