N.L.R.B. Rules Worker Wrongly Fired for Uncivil, Expletive-Filled Speech

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a worker using profanity on Facebook that criticised an employer cannot be used to fire the worker. The N.L.R.B. has jurisdiction over labour and union issues at private post-secondary institutions. It is possible that this ruling could have major academic freedom implications when civility is claimed as the rationale for firing or sanctioning unpopular extramural utterances. The invocation of civility by those in power to silence those with less power is the growing spectre of silencing critical thinking in the academy. The N.L.R.B. ruling, while applying to a non-academic environment, is potentially a game changer in resisting civility tests in twenty-first century American higher ed. Tip of the hat to Jerry Kendall, law professor at John Marshall Law School, for sharing this item. N.B. This article did not edit the expletives that led to the firing and subsequent ruling!

Labor Board Shields Online Rants

NLRB says employee wrongly fired for expletive­ filled Facebook post against boss.

Jenna Greene, The National Law Journal

April 20, 2015

To some, a recent labor board ruling about social media marks the end of workplace civility. To others, it’s a boost to protected speech.

The National Labor Relations Board concluded last month that a New York catering company was wrong to fire a worker who posted an expletive­filled rant on Facebook against his boss and his boss’ ​family.

The board’s decision was the latest in a series of controversial labor rulings about what speech on social media is protected as “concerted” employee activity. It’s a rapidly evolving area of oversight — the labor board issued its first Facebook­related decision in September 2012 — and some lawyers say the agency went too far this time.

“It’s crazy to me that this could be tolerated,” said Eric Meyer, a labor and employment partner at Dilworth Paxson, who chairs the firm’s social­ media practice. “These were blatant attacks on a supervisor and a supervisor’s family. There’s got to be a line.”

The case began in October 2011, when Hernan Perez, the employee, was working as a food server at Pier Sixty along the Hudson River in New York City. Two days before company workers prepared to vote on unionizing, Perez had a run­in with his supervisor, Robert McSweeney, who used a”raised, harsh tone” in ordering the waiters to spread out.

Perez, upset, took a break outside. He used his iPhone to post on Facebook that “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER dont know how to talk to people!!!!!! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking  family!!!! What a  LOSER!!!! Vote YES  for the UNION!!!!!!!”

Perez was fired. “It was an over­-the -top comment.You can’t have a workplace where you essentially accept language of that degree,” said Jackson Lewis partner Thomas Gibbons, who represented Pier Sixty. “If  that’s tolerated, what’s not?””

The NLRB didn’t see it that way. Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce and Commissioner Lauren McFerran ruled the firing was illegal. They upheld a decision by administrative law judge Lauren Esposito.

The key to the board’s decision: The commissioners found that Perez’s Facebook post “asserted mistreatment of employees” — a protected category of speech under the National Labor Relations Act — by alleging that McSweeney didn’t know how to talk to the workers. Indeed, one of the main concerns driving the Pier Sixty unionization campaign was “what employees perceived as management’s hostile and degrading treatment,” the NLRB majority found.

Moreover, Perez urged his Facebook friends, who included co­workers, to vote yes for the union. “One take­away from the decision is that if you put ‘#Union,’ it insulates the entire post,” said Cozen O’Connor labor and employment partner  Michael Schmidt.

As for the foul language, the NLRB majority was swayed by what it said was the prevalence of profanity at Pier Sixty. “We do not view Perez’ use of this profanity to be qualitatively different from profanity regularly tolerated by the respondent,” the majority wrote. “Nor was Perez’ reference to McSweeney’s family beyond the act’s protection,” they held, viewing the slur as directed toward McSweeney himself.

Pier Sixty counsel Gibbons disagrees. “It’s one thing to drop a plate and say ‘Oh fuck,’ and another to say ‘Fuck your entire family,'” he said.

Republican NLRB Commissioner Harry Johnson III dissented. “My colleagues recast an outrageous,  individualized griping episode as a protected activity,” Johnson wrote.

He continued, “It serves no discernible purpose for the board to stretch beyond reason to protect beyond­the­pale behavior that happens to overlap with protected activity. It certainly does not serve the goal of labor peace.”

Gibbons said Pier Sixty has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

A case that raises similar issues is now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

In that case, the agency found two workers at Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille in Watertown, Connecticut, were wrongly fired for complaining on Face​book about how the owner handled employee payroll tax withholdings. One worker, a waitress, posted a comment calling the owner an “asshole.” Another, a cook, “liked” the post before the  waitress made her comment.

The bar owner said the workers were disloyal and fired them.

Like 93 percent of the private sector, the Triple Play bar is not unionized. But NLRB labor laws still apply.

“Employees have the right to communicate regarding terms and conditions of employment with each other and with the public, with certain narrowly ­construed exceptions,” NLRB lawyers wrote in a brief filed on April

The workers’ comments, “though harsh, were part of a Facebook discussion directly related to the ongoing labor dispute,” the brief states. “Communi​cation is not disloyal if its primary purpose is to improve terms and conditions of  employment.”

To Stuart Buttrick, who leads the labor management relations team at Faegre Baker Daniels, the NLRB is using social media­-related cases as an opportunity to  stay relevant in nonunionized workplaces. “Employers otherwise ​blissfully unaware of obligations under the [National Labor Relations Act] now have to pay attention to it,” he said. “They have to consider what to do about employees  on social media.”

Stephanie Caffera. a labor and employment partner at Nixon Peabody, said one legacy of the NLRB policies may be the demise of workplace civility.

“This board has made it nearly impossible to enforce policies requiring people to behave in a respectful manner in the workplace,” she said.

 

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