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Context is everything – to everyone but the NLRB, apparently. Last week, they ignored some critically important context in finding that somehow AT&T in Connecticut violated the National Labor Relations Act by prohibiting its technicians — who were making home service and repair visits to customer’s homes — from wearing shirts labeled, “Inmate.”
Yes, you read that right. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union representing these employees, apparently hatched the harebrained scheme to have its members – even the ones who were knocking on customers’ doors – wear shirts that were labeled, “Inmate,” to protest the lack of progress in their negotiations.
But let’s go back to context. Every citizen of Connecticut – and indeed around the country – were horrified by the gruesome torture and murder of the a mother and two daughters in the Petit family in Cheshire Connecticut in July of 2007. The horrific crime was the result of a home invasion committed by two serial felons who were on parole at the time. It took a full two years for the case to come to trial. As the trial approached, all the grim details of the crime were once again unearthed, revisited and rehashed repeatedly in the Connecticut and surrounding media.
It was at this time that the brain trust at the CWA decided to exert pressure on AT&T Connecticut to get things going with their contract bargaining. To that end, the CWA decided that their members would wear various shirts as symbols of their protest. One such shirt had the word, “Inmate” prominently emblazoned on it. This shirt was worn by a CWA group that included those who make home visits for service and maintenance calls.
The company rightfully stepped in to forbid those customer-facing employees from wearing the shirts. The CWA, oblivious or indifferent to the looming Petit trial and the fear it stirred among the residents, filed a grievance.
To his great credit, NLRB member Brian Hayes recalled and referenced the Petit case and its impact on the psyche of the people in AT&T Connecticut’s service area in finding that AT&T Connecticut did not overstep is bounds in ordering its employees not to wear “Inmate” shirts. But Hayes was outvoted 2-1, with traditional union allies Liebman and Becker, the latter a former union lawyer, voting to uphold the union’s charge.
It’s bad enough that the NLRB doesn’t allow an employer any discretion over what its customer-facing employees may not wear. This would appear to be a fundamental part of the employment relationship. The union has all sorts of tactics at its disposal without resorting to this sort of disruptive behavior. But in this case, the Board had to ignore some critically important – and tragic – context in its efforts to hand a victory to its union allies. You can read this irresponsible decision, Southern New England Tel. Co. d/b/a AT&T Conn., 356 N.L.R.B. No. 118, 3/24/11, here.