Everyone, it seems, defines teams differently. This past December the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) clarified what teams can't be, ruling that action committees at Electromation were illegal. Although the narrowly framed decision suggested that the NLRB does not intend to invalidate most teams, the case merits review.

In 1988 management at Electromation, a 200-employee electronics manufacturer in Elkhart, Ind., announced a wage freeze and the elimination of certain bonuses. When employees complained, managers suggested they form action committees to make recommendations, which management would implement if the budget allowed. Employees reluctantly agreed.

The next February a local teamsters affiliate petitioned for an election at Electromation. After losing that election, the teamsters filed a complaint with the NLRB, alleging that the action committees constituted an illegal employer-controlled union. An NLRB judge decided in favor of the teamsters, and last December the board upheld that decision.

The NLRB found that Electromation clearly dominated its action committees. Management had proposed them, defined their purpose, limited their authority, and helped determine their make up. Teams met on company time and used company facilities.

That domination was a problem only because the committees constituted a representative group. What made them so? Here are some of the issues, according to Phil Miscimarra, a lawyer with Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson in Chicago:

Does the committee represent employees? Electromation's management expected that committee members would "talk back and forth" with other employees and solicit their opinions. That was enough to constitute representation.

What is the committee's purpose? Electromation's committees discussed wages, bonuses, and other conditions of employment. The board might uphold teams that address operational issues such as quality.

Does the committee deal with management? Deal with here suggests the bilateral discussion of collective bargaining, although it is broader in meaning than that term. The NLRB would be more likely to see as lawful a committee that resolves employee complaints if management were to delegate all authority in such matters to that committee.

-- Michael P. Cronin