In a potentially important decision for health care employers, Care Center of Kansas City, the federal labor board recently affirmed that a local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) engaged in unprotected strike activity by participating in two separate one-day work stoppages. Even though the union provided 10-days’ advance notice of each one-day strike, as required by Section 8(g) of the National Labor Relations Act, the strikes were still unprotected under board law because they were “intermittent” in nature.

Care Center of Kansas City had a long collective bargaining history with SEIU involving a unit of 40 health care employees. During negotiations for a successor contract, Care Center and SEIU were unable to agree on a wage increase. To support its contract demands, SEIU gave 8(g) strike notices on three separate occasions, engaging in two disruptive 24-hour work stoppages. Following the strikes, Care Center gave disciplinary warnings to strikers for failing to show up for work and required strikers to make up missed time by working undesirable weekend shifts. SEIU charged that Care Center’s response was unlawful retaliation against a protected strike.

In prior decisions, the board had held that repeated, short-term strikes under a single 8(g) notice were unprotected as intermittent work stoppages. Care Center involved a key distinction, however, as SEIU had issued separate 8(g) notices to render each strike a freestanding job action. This is a common tactic in health care strikes, and in years past, board personnel have frequently refused to issue complaints against unions for bad-faith bargaining based on the use of this type of repeated one-day strike. Employers have generally concluded that this refusal also meant that the conduct was protected and have refrained from taking action against employees despite the disruptions caused by the behavior. As a result, SEIU and various other unions have used the tactic without consequence to the unions or the employees.

The Care Center decision went beyond prior holdings, however, finding that SEIU’s intermittent 24-hour work stoppages, while supported by separate strike notices, were still part of a pattern of unprotected intermittent work stoppages designed to support the union’s bargaining strategy through disruption and harassment. As a result, the employer’s disciplinary responses were lawful because they were not taken in response to protected conduct. (The board was not presented with the issue of whether SEIU’s strikes might indicate bad-faith bargaining, but some board precedents indicate that intermittent strikes can signify bad faith on the union’s part.)

Care Center provides some relief for employers exposed to short-term strikes in support of a union’s bargaining demands. In considering such actions, unions and employees must consider the possibility that the employer will respond with disciplinary action and other adverse consequences. It should be noted, however, that Care Center may be appealed to a federal court of appeals. Further, board law occasionally changes as political appointments change its membership. Therefore, employers should consult with counsel and consider carefully how to respond when employees engage in such work stoppages.