Get Your Buttons On! NLRB Slaps Down Pac Bell’s Button Ban
June 29, 2015 by Andrew Baker
The NLRB has for sixty years upheld the right of union members to wear union buttons on the job. But that right comes with limitations. An employer that demonstrates “special circumstances” sufficient to outweigh employees’ union interests can legitimately regulate union buttons at work. Special circumstances may include situations where a display of union insignia might “jeopardize employee safety, damage machinery or products, exacerbate employee dissension, or unreasonably interfere with a public image that the employer has established, as part of its business plan, through appearance rules for its employees.” The requirement that employees wear a uniform is not alone a special circumstance justifying a button prohibition. Nor does customer exposure to union insignia, standing alone, constitute a special circumstance.
In a decision issued in early June, the Board rejected Pac Bell’s arguments that it could forbid its premise techs who install and repair phones inside customer homes and businesses from wearing pro-union buttons on the job. Pac. Bell Tel. Co., 362 NLRB No. 105. CWA started a button campaign to support their contract negotiations. The Company complained that buttons that said “WTF, Where’s the Fairness” and “FTW Fight to Win” were vulgar and offensive. But the Board concluded that the definitions of “WTF” and “FTW” included on the buttons sufficiently removed any suggestion that the initials stood for a vulgar or offensive message. And even though the Company had a uniform policy in place, the Board found it significant that before contract negotiations, the Company had permitted the premise techs to wear all sorts of union insignia.
The decision here is consistent with past Board decisions, such as those where the Board rejected employer arguments that buttons stating, “Stick Your Retro” and “I’m tired of busting my ass” did not lose protection as being vulgar or obscene. The decision is also consistent with past decisions that have approved employer button bans where the button language contained explicitly vulgar connotations; for example, “bone us.”
So with these guidelines in mind, get those buttons ready to wear on the job to broadcast your union message. (Unions are cautioned to consult with counsel before embarking on a button campaign.)
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