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Dissing the Boss

Last week the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against American Medical Response, a Connecticut ambulance service, on behalf of an AMR employee who was fired for violating a company policy.  This particular policy forbids employees from depicting AMR “in any way” on Facebook or other social networks.

While labor experts agree that the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the Wagner Act) not only gives employees the express right to form unions, but also prohibits employers from reprimanding employees for criticizing management or discussing the company in negative terms, there’s disagreement over whether these rights extend to social networking sites.

Because this case marks the first time the NLRB has attempted to defend a worker’s right to criticize his or her bosses on a social network site, it’s being treated as a landmark challenge.

In reaching its decision to file a formal complaint, the NLRB characterized AMR’s blanket policy as “overly broad.”  In fact, the NLRB’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “This is a fairly straightforward case under the National Labor Relations Act.  Whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions, in this case about their supervisor, and they have a right to do that.”

Briefly, what happened was that an AMR employee, one Dawnmarie Souza, unhappy with a personnel decision her supervisor had recently made, logged on to her Facebook page and unloaded on him.  Although Ms. Souza unwisely used some vulgar language in her comments, the NLRB noted that several fellow workers joined in the electronic conversation by sympathizing with Ms. Souza and offering criticisms of their own.

The case is scheduled to be heard before an administrative law judge on January 25 of next year.  If the judge considers the Internet to be no more than an electronic extension of a discussion around the water cooler, then Ms. Souza will likely be reinstated.  If, however, the judge rules that AMR’s “no Facebook” policy was legal, and that the postings constituted a form of insubordination, then there could be an unhappy ending.

In any event, beyond the obvious freedom of expression and “new technology” implications of the case, AMR’s draconian company policies speak to a larger problem, one that is sweeping across America’s offices and factories.  Because of the recession, the high unemployment rate and organized labor’s perceived vulnerability, businesses are aggressively asserting themselves in ways never before imagined.

Neutrality agreements (where a union seeking certification agrees not to engage in negative propaganda about the company) are now commonplace.  Unions are viewed as so impotent, they’re being asked to sign “loyalty oaths” (where they agree not to publicly criticize company policies); and some unions are even agreeing to contract language that relinquishes seniority rights and contains no-strike clauses—suggestions that would have been laughed off the table in the 1970s.

No one can recall seeing anything like it….the utter disregard for workers’ rights.  Clearly, America’s corporations feel they can run the table every time they pick up a cue stick.  And after coming off NAFTA, CAFTA, deregulation of banking, eight years of Clinton and eight more of George W. Bush and Elaine Chao (Bush’s Secretary of Labor), who can blame them?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net