The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently released its 2010 regulatory plan, which envisions a major change in how DOL interprets the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (“LMRDA”) as to when an employer must disclose its use of attorneys or consultants to help persuade employees not to unionize. In particular, DOL will be seeking to narrow a longstanding exemption that allows employers not to report having received “advice” from lawyers and consultants on union organizing.

LMRDA requires employers to file annual reports with DOL identifying every “agreement or arrangement with a labor relations consultant or other independent contractor or organization” pursuant to which such a third party: (1) engages in “activities where an object thereof, directly or indirectly, is to persuade employees to exercise or not to exercise, or persuade employees as to the manner of exercising,” their right to unionize; or (2) supplies the employer with “information concerning the activities of employees or a labor organization in connection with a labor dispute involving such employer, except information for use solely in conjunction with an administrative or arbitral proceeding or a criminal or civil judicial proceeding.” 29 U.S.C. § 433(a). Employers must also report any payment made pursuant to such an arrangement. Id.   LMRDA imposes a similar reporting requirement on those who provide such services. 29 U.S.C. § 433(b). Willful violations of the law, as well as knowing material misstatements or omissions, are a crime. 29 U.S.C. § 439.

In a key exception, LMRDA does not require employers to report “services of [a] person by reason of his giving or agreeing to give advice to [an] employer” in the covered areas. 29 U.S.C. § 433(c). In the union organizing context, DOL has traditionally distinguished between “direct persuaders,” who communicate directly with employees on behalf of employers and are covered by the reporting requirements, and “advisors,” who have no direct contact with employees and are not covered. Until now, DOL has construed “advice” to include a consultant’s review of and comments on persuasive materials prepared by the employer, as well as the consultant’s preparation of materials for the employer to use that the employer is free to reject.

Moreover, under current regulations, reports need not be filed as to services that consist of “representing or agreeing to represent an employer before any court, administrative agency, or tribunal of arbitration,” or “engaging or agreeing to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of an employer … or the negotiation of an agreement or any question arising thereunder.” 29 C.F.R. § 406.5(b). Reports filed by attorneys need not include “information which was lawfully communicated to such attorney by any of his clients in the course of a legitimate attorney-client relationship.” 29 U.S.C. § 434 (emphasis added); see also 29 C.F.R. § 406.5(d). Neither the law nor the regulations mention communications by an attorney to a client, presumably because that falls within the more general “advice” exception.

In announcing DOL’s regulatory agenda for 2010, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said that the agency will seek to expand the LMRDA reporting requirements by narrowing what DOL treats as exempt “advice.” Although DOL has not yet signaled what specific changes it may implement, one model may be regulations that the Clinton administration implemented in its final days. Under those rules, employers would have been required to disclose all persuasive scripts, letters, videotapes, or other materials that were prepared by attorneys or consultants if one goal of the materials was to persuade employees regarding their union rights – even if the attorney or consultant who prepared the materials had no direct contact with employees. The Bush administration quickly rescinded those rules, but Secretary Solis’s 2010 agenda suggests that DOL may be looking to adopt a similar approach.