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Wearing Pins and Buttons at Work May Be Protected by NLRB

Free speech and employer rights often clash in the workplace. This can be a very complicated legal issue to navigate. Employees at a Texas fast-food restaurant were faced with conflict when their employer demanded that they stop wearing buttons in a demonstration of employee rights and minimum wage laws.

Supporting the “Fight for $15” campaign

If you are not familiar, the “Fight for $15” campaign is a national movement supporting an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour, the right to forms unions in the absence of intimidation tactics, and other advancesfor low-wage employees. A few employees at a fast food restaurant in Austin, Texas wore buttons in support of this movement.

A female employee wore one of these buttons to work, but no one commented on it. However, another employee asked a manager whether it was ok to wear the same button and he was told that the button was not part of the restaurant uniform. The next day, the female employee wore the button again and the manager questioned her about it this time. She responded by first explaining the purpose of the button, the movement advocating for “a higher minimum wage, living wages.”

The same day, a third employee wore a similar button supporting the same campaign. He was reported to the store manager who then called him in to discuss the button. The store manager asked the employee if he was familiar with the uniform policy and told him that, under that policy, he was not allowed to add anything to the uniform. The employee complied and removed the button, but informed the store manager that he intended to file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

The employer’s prior practices regarding buttons

Despite the fact that the restaurant indeed had a “no pins or stickers” rule, it actually required its employees to wear company-issued buttons on two separate occasions each year. Those required buttons were nearly three times larger than the “Fight for $15” buttons being worn by the employees. The NLRB, after investigating the complaint filed against the restaurant, issued a formal complaint and requested a hearing. The company argued that it had an interest in maintaining a unique public image, which constituted “special circumstances” sufficient to justify its uniform policy regarding the wearing buttons.

Violation of the National Labor Relations Act

The National Labor Relations Act provides employees with “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. The Act also makes it an unfair labor practice for employers to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in [S]ection [7].” 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1).

It has long been recognized that the Act protects the rights of employees to wear buttons, pins, or stickers that relate to the terms and conditions of employment. This includes wage and hour issues, unionization, and other protected issues. In light of these protections, any employer who maintains or enforces a rule that restricts employees from displaying these items commits an unfair labor practice in violation of the Act.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!