NLRB Rules in Kentucky River Cases

Overturning nearly sixty years of established precedent, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today issued rulings in the “Kentucky River” cases, setting the stage for the re-classification of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of workers as “supervisors,” thereby depriving them of the right to union membership.

In the key decision, Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., the NLRB ruled those workers who use “independent judgment” while “assigning” or “directing” tasks to co-workers are statutory “supervisors.” In so doing, the NLRB has essentially re-written the existing law which, since 1947, had consistently recognized that employees having the authority to assign particular tasks are not supervisors, absent additional managerial powers, such as the power to hire, fire, or discipline.

As a result of the Oakwood decision, many nurses and other professional employees, as well as skilled craft employees and lead workers in industry, are now in danger of being re-classified as statutory “supervisors” and therefore stripped of their rights under federal labor law. The NLRB has also given the green light for employers to argue that practically any worker who has the authority to assign or direct another is a “supervisor” and therefore ineligible for union membership and the protection of a union contract – even if their jobs have been covered by a union contract for decades.

“Today’s decision threatens to create a new class of workers under Federal labor law: workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management, not the statutory rights of ordinary employees,” said NLRB members Liebman and Walsh in their dissent regarding the Oakwood case.

The full impact of the NLRB’s decision won’t be clear for some time, as employers attempt to strip employees of their union protections on a case-by-case basis. It is certain to have a major impact in the health-care field, but is also likely to be raised by employers in virtually every industry. The IAM vigorously opposes this sweeping and blatantly anti-labor ruling, and it will support an appeal by the United Auto Workers (the union directly involved in the Oakwood case) seeking to overturn the NLRB’s ruling and restore full union protections to all nurses and other lead workers.