Free Speech at Work Watch: Starbucks and the Wobblies

6 06 2012

A few weeks back the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board finding a Starbucks policy limiting employee speech in support of their union (the International Workers of the World, known as “Wobblies”). The reasoning is that the employer has an interest in cultivating a look among its employees who have client contact, permitting them to limit employees to one discrete button. What’s interesting is that Starbucks has given latitude to its employees in the past in terms of adornments:

[The Appellate Court] said that Starbucks does encourage wearing buttons as part of its employee-reward and product-promotion programs. The NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that many of the adornments worn by employees are not obviously related to employee programs, and that the resulting public image is of a uniformed employee wearing a variety of unrelated pins and buttons on their hats and aprons. The Appeals Court said that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) recognizes the employees’ rights to wear union insignia.

The Court disagreed with the NLRB that Starbucks could not limit the number of buttons, even where there had been a lax policy in the past. It will be interesting, in an era of progressively growing individuality and style-as-statement, how employers’ interest in uniformity will be weighed by courts.


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