Photo credit: Georgia State University Library

The National Labor Relations Board took another major step to eradicate the rights of working people with a recent controversial decision cracking down on workers wearing union insignia on the job. 

The National Labor Relations Board issued another anti-worker ruling, this time limiting what organizing swag workers can wear while on the job.
Photo credit: Ken Lawrence collection, 1940-2010, Pennsylvania State University via Flickr

“At every turn the NLRB seems intent on making it harder for working people to have a voice at work,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “This is just one more decision to lay on the pyre of union rights, and for no good reason.”

The decision, released on Dec. 23, held that workers can only wear “small, non-distracting” buttons and other insignia that are no larger than the size of the employee’s name badge, reported Bloomberg Law. The case comes from a challenge by OUR Walmart, a pro-worker organization, to Walmart’s policy that limits the size of union buttons.

The NLRB ruled that such limitations maintain the business’ goals – enhancing the customer experience and protecting merchandise from vandalism or theft – without any harmful impacts on workers’ rights to organize.

The judgement flies in the face of precedent, however. As In These Times reported, the NLRB in 2017 rejected an attempt by fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger to bar its workers from wearing “Fight for $15” buttons during their shifts. The company then tried to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was declined.

The NLRB also went against its own 75-year-old ruling, known as Republic Aviation. In that case, the board recognized a worker’s right to wear insignia and said an employer’s limitations were unlawful unless they demonstrated, “special circumstances,” reported Bloomberg Law. Now, the board says it will use a new standard from 2017, known as Boeing, which is decidedly more employer friendly.

The lone Democrat on the board at the time, Lauren McFerran, was the only dissent. Her term has since expired, leaving no pro-worker voices on the board.

“Today, the majority brushes aside Republic Aviation and its progeny and applies the less demanding standard from its deeply flawed decision in Boeing Co.,” McFerran wrote, adding that it, “surely would not be a welcome development for workers.”

Regional Organizing Coordinator Joseph Skinner says this issue is one that has impacted members.

“We have experienced this on several occasions,” Skinner said. “Most of the time the company claims that it is a safety issue if it’s a button, wristband, lanyard or even a sticker.”

Skinner noted that wearing a union button or other item is also a form of protection against discrimination.

“When a union supporter is fired during a campaign the company always says, ‘We fired this employee for a safety violation, or whatever reason, and we didn’t have any idea they were a union supporter.’ But if the person wore some union items for just a few minutes and the company asked them to take it off, it helps my case to show that the company was discriminating against their right to organize.”

The Trump administration’s Republican-led NLRB has been consistently rolling back rights for working people at seemingly every turn. Rulings have included – but are not limited to – giving employers the OK to eject union organizers from public spaces, to more easily withdraw union recognition, to discriminate against union members in the workplace, to thwart protests and to block the rights of people working for subcontractors and franchises.

In September, Trump appointed corporate lawyer Eugene Scalia as secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. Scalia brought with him a track record of siding with management at the expense of working people, including fighting rules that would have required employers to pay for their workers’ protective safety equipment and unsuccessfully fighting charges against SeaWorld after a whale killed its trainer during a performance.