CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.
Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Douglas, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 268. Powell, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stewart, J., joined, post, p. 269.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The National Labor Relations Board held in this case that respondent employer's denial of an employee's request that her union representative be present at an investigatory interview which the employee reasonably believed might result in disciplinary action constituted an unfair labor practice in violation of § 8 (a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act,*fn1 as amended, 61 Stat. 140, because it interfered with, restrained, and coerced the individual right of the employee, protected by § 7 of the Act, "to engage in . . . concerted activities for . . . mutual aid or protection . . . ."*fn2 202 N. L. R. B. 446 (1973).
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that this was an impermissible construction of § 7 and refused to enforce the Board's order that directed respondent to cease and desist from requiring any employee to take part in an investigatory interview without union representation if the employee requests representation and reasonably fears disciplinary action. 485 F.2d 1135 (1973).*fn3 We granted certiorari and set the case for oral argument with No. 73-765, Garment Workers v. Quality Mfg. Co., post, p. 276. 416 U.S. 969 (1974). We reverse.
Respondent operates a chain of some 100 retail stores with lunch counters at some, and so-called lobby food operations at others, dispensing food to take out or eat on the premises. Respondent's sales personnel are represented for collective-bargaining purposes by Retail Clerks Union, Local 455. Leura Collins, one of the sales personnel, worked at the lunch counter at Store No. 2 from 1961 to 1970 when she was transferred to the lobby operation at Store No. 98. Respondent maintains a companywide security department staffed by "Loss Prevention Specialists" who work undercover in all stores to guard against loss from shoplifting and employee dishonesty. In June 1972, "Specialist" Hardy, without the knowledge of the store manager, spent two days observing the lobby operation at Store No. 98 investigating a report that Collins was taking money from a cash register. When Hardy's surveillance of Collins at work turned up no evidence to support the report, Hardy disclosed his presence to the store manager and reported that he could find nothing wrong. The store manager then told him that a fellow lobby employee of Collins had just reported that Collins had purchased a box of chicken that sold for $2.98, but had placed only $1 in the cash register. Collins was summoned to an interview with Specialist Hardy and the store manager, and Hardy questioned her. The Board found that several times during the questioning she asked the store manager to call the union shop steward or some other union representative to the interview, and that her requests were denied. Collins admitted that she had purchased some chicken, a loaf of bread, and some cake which she said she paid for and donated to her church for a church dinner. She explained that she purchased four pieces of chicken for which the price was $1, but that because the lobby department
was out of the small-size boxes in which such purchases were usually packaged she put the chicken into the larger box normally used for packaging larger quantities. Specialist Hardy left the interview to check Collins' explanation with the fellow employee who had reported Collins. This employee confirmed that the lobby department had run out of small boxes and also said that she did not know how many pieces of chicken Collins had put in the larger box. Specialist Hardy returned to the interview, told Collins that her explanation had checked out, that he was sorry if he had inconvenienced her, and that the matter was closed.
Collins thereupon burst into tears and blurted out that the only thing she had ever gotten from the store without paying for it was her free lunch. This revelation surprised the store manager and Hardy because, although free lunches had been provided at Store No. 2 when Collins worked at the lunch counter there, company policy was not to provide free lunches at stores operating lobby departments. In consequence, the store manager and Specialist Hardy closely interrogated Collins about violations of the policy in the lobby department at Store No. 98. Collins again asked that a shop steward be called to the interview, but the store manager denied her request. Based on her answers to his questions, Specialist Hardy prepared a written statement which included a computation that Collins owed the store approximately $160 for lunches. Collins refused to sign the statement. The Board found that Collins, as well as most, if not all, employees in the lobby department of Store No. 98, including the manager of that department, took lunch from the lobby without paying for it, apparently because no contrary policy was ever made known to them. Indeed, when company headquarters advised Specialist Hardy by telephone during the interview that
headquarters itself was uncertain whether the policy against providing free lunches at lobby departments was in effect at Store No. 98, he terminated his interrogation of Collins. The store manager asked Collins not to discuss the matter with anyone because he considered it a private matter between her and the company, of no concern to others. Collins, however, reported the details of the interview fully to her shop steward and other union representatives, and this unfair labor practice proceeding resulted.*fn4
The Board's construction that § 7 creates a statutory right in an employee to refuse to submit without union representation to an interview which he reasonably fears may result in his discipline was announced in its decision and order of January 28, 1972, in Quality Mfg. Co., 195 N. L. R. B. 197, considered in Garment Workers v. Quality Mfg. Co., post, p. 276. In its opinions in that case and in Mobil Oil Corp., 196 N. L. R. B. 1052, decided May 12, 1972, three months later, the Board shaped the contours and limits of the statutory right.
First, the right inheres in § 7's guarantee of the right of employees to act in concert for mutual aid and protection. In Mobil Oil, the Board stated:
"An employee's right to union representation upon request is based on Section 7 of the Act which guarantees the right of employees to act in concert for
'mutual aid and protection.' The denial of this right has a reasonable tendency to interfere with, restrain, and coerce employees in violation of Section 8 (a)(1) of the Act. Thus, it is a serious violation of the employee's individual right to engage in concerted activity by seeking the assistance of his statutory representative if the employer denies the employee's request and compels the employee to appear unassisted at an interview which may put his job security in jeopardy. Such a dilution of the employee's right to act collectively to protect his job interests is, in our view, unwarranted interference with his right to insist on concerted protection, rather than individual self-protection, against possible adverse employer action." Ibid.
Second, the right arises only in situations where the employee requests representation. In other words, the employee may forgo his guaranteed right and, if he prefers, participate in an interview unaccompanied by his union representative.
Third, the employee's right to request representation as a condition of participation in an interview is limited to situations where the employee reasonably believe the investigation will result in disciplinary action.*fn5 Thus the Board stated in Quality :
"We would not apply the rule to such run-of-the-mill
shop-floor conversations as, for example, the giving of instructions or training or needed corrections of work techniques. In such cases there cannot normally be any reasonable basis for an employee to fear that any adverse impact may result from the interview, and thus we would then see no reasonable basis for him to seek the assistance of his representative." 195 N. L. R. B., at 199.
Fourth, exercise of the right may not interfere with legitimate employer prerogatives. The employer has no obligation to justify his refusal to allow union representation, and despite refusal, the employer is free to carry on his inquiry without interviewing the employee, and thus leave to the employee the choice between having an interview unaccompanied by his representative, or having no interview and forgoing any benefits that might be derived from one. As stated in Mobil Oil :
"The employer may, if it wishes, advise the employee that it will not proceed with the interview unless the employee is ...