Even False Statements By Union May Be Protected

It’s not a public safety case, but a recent decision from the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has an important lesson for public safety employers and labor organizations.

The case involved the Moraine Valley Community College, which terminated Robin Meade for making untruthful statements. Meade was the president of the local teacher’s union.

On August 20, 2013, while acting on behalf of the union, Meade sent a letter to the League for Innovation in the Community College, a consortium of colleges that promotes excellence and innovation in community colleges. League members must reapply for membership when their president changes. In the letter, Meade made the following statements:

• That the College treated adjunct professors as “disposable resources.”

• That the attitude of college administration “has created a chilling effect which affects adjunct performance and erodes the confidence the idyllic atmosphere and beautiful buildings and grounds strive to project.”

• That “the College was not innovative toward adjunct faculty.”

• That resources “were allocated to administration, full-time faculty and staff while the adjunct faculty were left to fend for themselves for pay and benefits.”

The Labor Relations Board overturned Meade’s termination. The Board found that “the scope of protection of statements made during the course of protected activity is very broad. Even false and inaccurate statements made in the course of concerted activity are protected unless they are deliberately or maliciously false. The National Labor Relations Board has likewise determined that a statement will not lose the protection of the National Labor Relations Act unless it is made with knowledge of its falsity, or with reckless disregard as to whether it is true or false.

“When Meade wrote the letter, she was speaking in her role as Union president about Union affairs and voicing her opinions as shared by the Union’s board and bargaining unit members. Specifically, Meade’s letter addressed the effect of the College’s conduct on adjunct faculty members’ working conditions. Therefore, her statements in the letter were subject to an extremely high degree of protection under the Act.

“An employer seeking to prove that a union officer’s statements about matters within the scope of the union’s representation of employees are not protected faces a very heavy burden. It was the College’s burden to show that Meade’s statements then were deliberately or maliciously false, rather than the Union’s burden to demonstrate that they were not. While the College may disagree with Meade’s statements in her August 20 letter, it has offered no evidence that her statements were deliberately or maliciously false, or even reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.”

The Board ordered the College to offer Meade reinstatement with full back pay.

Moraine Valley Community College, 32 PERI ¶ 56 (Ill. Educ. LRB 2015).