Coercive hopes

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Andrew Strom, "Workers Understand a Boss's 'Hopes'", On Labor 6/9/2017:

According to the sworn testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, President Trump pulled him into a private meeting in the oval office and said, about the FBI’s ongoing investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, “I hope you can let this go.”  One question raised by the testimony is whether it was reasonable for Comey to interpret President Trump’s statement as a directive.  While labor law does not have a direct answer, the National Labor Relations Board has held that when a company president expresses his “hope” to a worker, it can be coercive.

In a 1995 case, KNTV, Inc., the company president had a private meeting with a reporter where the president told the reporter, “I hope you won’t continue to be an agitator or antagonize the people in the newsroom.”  The NLRB found that the statement was coercive in large part because it was made by the company’s highest ranking official and it was made in a meeting that the reporter was required to attend alone.  Sound familiar?

In other words, the expert agency that regularly adjudicates disputes about whether particular statements by an employer rise to the level of coercion has held that when the president of an organization expresses his “hopes” in a private conversation with a worker, those comments will likely have a “chilling effect” on the employee.

Further details are available in the NLRB Decision and Order,"KNTV, Inc. and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFL–CIO. Case 32–CA–12732".

In July of 1993, Administrative Law Judge Jay R. Pollack ruled that KNTV, Inc.,

violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act when its president, Park, told employee Ken Wayne, ‘‘I hope you won’t continue to be an agitator or instigate others.’’ The judge found that Park’s statement was unlawfully coercive because it was made in response to Wayne’s protected concerted attempts to have the Respondent discuss wages and other working conditions with an employee committee.

The legal proceedings continued, and in October of 1995, the National Labor Relations Board "decided to affirm the judge’s rulings, findings,1 and conclusions".

The Respondent excepts, arguing that it did not violate Section 8(a)(1). It contends, initially, that Park’s testimony should be credited instead of Wayne’s. Alternatively, the Respondent argues that Wayne’s testimony differs from that recited by the judge. Finally, the Respondent asserts that, even crediting Wayne, Park’s statement was neither coercive nor threatening.

We agree with the Respondent that the judge misquoted the record. Wayne testified that Park told him, ‘‘[W]ell I hope you won’t continue to be an agitator or antagonize the people in the newsroom.’’ Even correcting this testimony, however, we adopt the judge’s finding that the Respondent violated Section 8(a)(1).

These being lawyers, there's no discussion of felicity conditions or indirect speech acts. Rather, it's taken by the NLRB to be obvious that (as James Comey put it) the "circumstances, the subject matter, and the person" made it a matter of common sense that the remark was coercively "chilling":

Thus, this statement was made to Wayne by Park, the Respondent’s highest ranking official. It was made during a meeting, in Park’s office, that Wayne was required to attend alone despite his request that the Respondent meet with the employee committee. Further, Park’s statement was directed at Wayne’s protected attempts to have the Respondent address employee pay issues. In these circumstances, Park’s comments had a chilling effect and interfered with Wayne’s exercise of rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the Act. 

The fact that KNTV later fired Wayne is also a relevant part of the story.

President Trump is not accused of violating the National Labor Relations Act, obviously. But in context, the perception of "I hope you can let this go" as a directive is a matter of common sense, just as the perception of "I hope you won’t continue to be an agitator" as coercive was in 1995.

From Grice onwards, philosophers and linguists and AI researchers have tried to understand, explain, and model common-sense communication. Like other aspects of common sense, the logical reconstruction of communicative intentions is subtle and difficult. But often the conclusions are, well, common sense.



  1. ErikF said,

    June 11, 2017 @ 1:57 am

    I don't believe that I have ever seen "excepts" before. At first I thought it was bureaucratese, but the verb "except" does have the meaning of "to object"! Does this have any currency outside the legal profession? Google Ngram shows the specific form "excepts" as declining in use; I assume that the verb in general follows the same trend.

  2. ardj said,

    June 11, 2017 @ 3:33 am

    Unusual use, but certainly in the OED (2nd ed.) at except, v. 2: intr. To make objection; to object or take exception…. From the use of Latin excipere (adversus aliquem) … the etymological notion being that of limiting the right alleged in an opponent's declaration by setting up a countervailing right in the defendant which excepts his own case.
    I am not sure I fully understand the last part of that, which seems to suggest that the exceptor is also objecting to his own case; but I suspect that your legally-trained readers will judge whether its use is current practice.

    And if the subsequent firing of Wayne was relevant, maybe Mr Comey should consider his rights under the National Labor Relations Act (I hope I have spelt that correctly)

  3. Noscitur a sociis said,

    June 11, 2017 @ 3:50 am

    "And if the subsequent firing of Wayne was relevant, maybe Mr Comey should consider his rights under the National Labor Relations Act (I hope I have spelt that correctly)"

    Government employees aren't protected under the NLRA.

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