On December 16, 2022, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) issued its decision in Troutbeck Company, LLC d/b/a Brooklyn 181 Hospitality, LLC, among the latest in an eventful string of rulings over the last two weeks.  In a 2-1 decision (Chairman McFerran and Member Prouty in the Majority, with Member Ring dissenting), the Board held that Troutbeck Company, LLC (“Company”) violated Sections 8(a)(5) and (1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) when it refused to bargain with the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, AFL–CIO (“Union”) over economic subjects until all non-economic subjects had been resolved.

This case provides an important cautionary tale that engaging in the practice of refusing to negotiate over certain bargaining subjects until other issues are agreed to can violate the Act.

Factual Background

The Company owns a hotel in Brooklyn where the workforce is represented by the Union. In June 2020, at the parties’ second bargaining session, the Company’s negotiator proposed several “ground rules,” including that the parties first discuss the non-economic terms of the agreement before turning to the economic subjects at issue. The Union rejected the rule, stating that “we do not want to constrain the parties’ capability to freely explore and discuss any items, such as specific proposals, terms, or conditions, during bargaining sessions.”

The Company then proposed a modified version of the rule: “The parties agree to focus primarily on non-economic subjects before turning to economic subjects, but it is understood that this general framework does not preclude either party from raising and freely discussing any item at any point in the bargaining process.” The Union also rejected this rule, stating that the Company was not entitled to “preclude the parties from bringing up certain subjects.”

Despite the Union’s rejection of the rule, the Company moved forward with bargaining focusing only on non-economic terms first. Meanwhile, the Union made economic proposals to which the Company refused to respond until the non-economic proposals were settled.  The Company refused to provide a comprehensive proposal or counter-proposal on all issues, despite the Union’s repeated requests for one.

A 7-month hiatus of bargaining followed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the hotel industry. When bargaining continued in 2021, the parties continued to disagree about the mechanics of bargaining—the Company disagreed with the Union’s refusal to discuss individual topics without a complete proposal from the Employer, and the Union argued that meaningful bargaining could not occur until it received a wage proposal. Both parties agreed to leave this issue for the Board to decide.

Majority Decision – Company Violated the NLRA

The Board held that the Company violated Section 8(a)(5) of the Act for failure to bargain in good faith as a result of its bargaining tactics. The NLRB reasoned that while parties may make good-faith proposals and agree to certain ground rules regarding the subject and sequence of negotiated terms, there was obviously no such agreement here between the parties.

Citing longstanding precedent, the Board concluded that the Company “unreasonably fragmented the negotiations and drastically reduced the parties’ bargaining flexibility,” by insisting on an agreement concerning non-economic items before responding to the Union’s proposal regarding economic issues.  Moreover, as a result of the back-and-forth, rather than negotiating over the substantive terms at issue, the parties “expended significant bargaining time discussing how negotiations would be conducted.”

Dissent – Company Did Not Violate the NLRA 

Member Ring dissented, finding that the COVID-19 pandemic and good-faith disputes between the parties accounted for their inability to make progress in the negotiations. Specifically, he noted that the Company reasonably proposed negotiating subsets of certain topics, starting with non-economic subjects, while the Union conveyed a preference for reviewing an agreement in its entirety.  Member Ring emphasized that “[w]hile the Board has held that a party violates [the Act] by refusing indefinitely to bargain about economic matters until all non-economic matters are resolved, no such refusal has been proven here.”  Member Ring’s dissent stressed that the Board’s majority decision undermined the system of collective bargaining by intervening prematurely in parties’ still-ongoing negotiations.

Takeaways

The decision serves as a reminder about how the Board may view certain strategies utilized by a bargaining party, even commonly-used tactics like the one at issue in Troutbeck.  Although this tactic—insisting that the parties bargain over non-economic terms before moving to economic terms—is not a per se violation of the Act, bargaining parties should proceed with caution in light of the Board’s decision.  If the other side agrees with this “ground rule,” then there is no issue.  However, this strategy can backfire if the other side refuses to segment the bargaining subjects.  While these cases are heavily fact-dependent, if one party insists on refusing to negotiate over certain subjects, then the Board may find that such conduct evidences a desire not to reach agreement in violation of the duty to bargain in good faith under the NLRA.

Photo of Joshua Fox Joshua Fox

Joshua S. Fox is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Sports, Labor-Management Relations, Class and Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups.

As a member of the Sports Law Group, Josh has represented several…

Joshua S. Fox is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Sports, Labor-Management Relations, Class and Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups.

As a member of the Sports Law Group, Josh has represented several Major League Baseball Clubs in all aspects of the salary arbitration process, including the Miami Marlins, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. In particular, Josh successfully represented the Miami Marlins in their case against All-Star Catcher J.T. Realmuto, which was a significant club victory in salary arbitration. Josh also represents Major League Baseball and its clubs in ongoing litigation brought by current and former minor league players who allege minimum wage and overtime violations. Josh participated on the team that successfully defended Major League Baseball in a wage-and-hour lawsuit brought by a former volunteer for the 2013 All-Star FanFest, who alleged minimum wage violations under federal and state law. The lawsuit was dismissed by the federal district court, and was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Josh also has extensive experience representing professional sports leagues and teams in grievance arbitration proceedings, including playing a vital role in all aspects of the grievance challenging the suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs of then-New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Josh also has counseled NHL Clubs and served on the trial teams for grievances alleging violations of the collective bargaining agreement, including cases involving use of performance-enhancing substances, domestic violence issues, and supplementary discipline for on-ice conduct. He has played a key role in representing professional sports leagues in all aspects of their collective bargaining negotiations with players and officials, including the Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, the National Football League, Major League Soccer, the Professional Referee Organization, and the National Basketball Association,.

In addition, Josh has extensive experience representing clients in the performing arts industry, including the New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, Big Apple Circus, among many others, in collective bargaining negotiations with performers and musicians, the administration of their collective bargaining agreements, and in grievance arbitrations.

Josh also represents a diverse range of clients, including real estate developers and contractors, pipe line contractors, hospitals, hotels, manufacturers and public employers, in collective bargaining, counseling on general employment matters and proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board, New York State Public Employment Relations Board and arbitrators.

Josh has also recently served as an adjunct professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations for the past two years, teaching a course regarding Major League Baseball salary arbitration.

Prior to joining Proskauer, Josh worked for a year and a half at the National Hockey League, where he was involved in all labor and employment matters, including preparations for collective bargaining, grievance arbitration, contract drafting and reviewing and employment counseling. Josh also interned in the labor relations department of Major League Baseball and at Region 2 of the National Labor Relations Board. He was a member of the Brooklyn Law Review and the Appellate Moot Court Honor Society and served as president of the Brooklyn Entertainment and Sports Law Society.

Photo of Megan Childs Megan Childs

Megan Childs is an associate in the Labor Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Arbitration Group.