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Working In These Times

Monday, May 15, 2017, 2:04 pm

Want To Speak Out About Politics at Work? Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know.

BY Sam Wheeler and Leo Gertner

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These tips are not foolproof ways to protect your job, but they provide some cover in the face of the risks and challenges ahead. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)  

In the past several months, there’s been a noted uptick in political speech at work. That speech has often made national news, from Sally Yates’ dismissal as interim attorney general to IBM workers organizing against their employer’s support of Donald Trump. In the early days of the Trump administration, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s strike against the Muslim ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport stood out as an impressive act of resistance and solidarity. And even before Trump’s election, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sparked a national discussion when he refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of racism against African-Americans and other people of color.

Protests against the administration are building quickly, with diverse groups organizing mass protests against the administration’s policies. This month, on May Day—otherwise known as International Workers’ Day—thousands of workers across the country took to the streets to challenge Trump’s draconian and unconstitutional immigration policies. In all likelihood, political activity at work will only increase throughout the Trump administration, all of which begs the question: How protected are workers who talk politics on the job?

As it turns out, not very, at least legally. Though more than 40 percent of participants in a 2014 YouGov poll believed that the First Amendment protected them from retaliation for their workplace political speech, the truth is that workers have, at best, a patchwork of rights to talk politics at work.

Most private sector workers have no Constitutional protections to engage in political speech at work. However, they do have rights as workers. (Government workers have some limited First Amendment rights because the First Amendment applies to government action, but those rights aren’t always consistently defined.)

Though it can be difficult to navigate the maze of laws that regulates employment, there are some simple things to keep in mind that can help private sector employees ensure they have maximum protection at work. These tips are not foolproof ways to protect your job, but they provide some cover in the face of the risks and challenges ahead. Of course, you’re safest keeping your protests outside of work, but building the resistance against Trump will require shop floor leaders to be vocal and visible. While speaking out at work is inherently risky, the rewards measured in collective strength and tangible gains cannot be overestimated.

Step 1: Bring a buddy

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the main law governing relations between workers and employers in the private sector, is unique: It mostly protects groups, not individuals. This means that whenever you stand up to improve the conditions at your workplace with at least one other worker, you are engaging in “protected concerted activity” under the NLRA, and you can’t lawfully be fired or disciplined for that activity. Solidarity at work is protected under federal law. This protection applies to regular workplace complaints and grievances—for instance, joining with your coworkers to form a union or ask for a wage increase—but can also apply to political activity.

Usually, even talking to coworkers about your problems at work is “protected concerted activity.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently broadened the meaning of the term in a 2014 case. In that case, the NLRB held that a worker who talked to her coworkers about serving as witnesses in her individual sexual harassment complaint was protected under the NLRA because she was enlisting coworkers in her aid. This suggests that a worker can invoke the protections of the NLRA just by talking with coworkers.

It’s always a good idea to act with at least one other coworker. The best defense is building strong ties with coworkers and the community. The more the boss fears pushback, the less likely he is to retaliate. At the very least, make sure to talk to a coworker before engaging in any action at work, political or otherwise, to bring that action under the NLRA’s protection. But keep in mind that not all political protest is protected—as Step 2 explains.

Step 2: If you’re talking or protesting politics, find ways to tie your protest to issues your employer can control

If you decide to engage in political activity at work, the most important action you can take to protect yourself and your coworkers is to tie your speech or protest to an “employment related concern.” With some limited exceptions, the NLRA protects you from discipline for discussing anything having to do with your pay, occupational safety, the policies at your job, and other terms and conditions of employment with coworkers and third parties, whether the news media or a government agency. In a famous labor law case from 1962, NLRB v. Washington Aluminum, the Supreme Court found that labor law protected a group of workers who spontaneously walked off the job because the shop was too cold to work, though there was a rule against leaving work without the supervisor’s permission and the employees didn’t plan or know they were engaging in a workplace action.

Problems that your employer can’t affect or control are not employment related. For example, in 2006, hundreds of workers were terminated for walking off the job to join massive protests against anti-immigrant legislation proposed in Congress. In response to the terminations, the NLRB came up with some guidelines for political activity. While the protests were found to have been done for “mutual aid and protection”—workers standing together in solidarity—walking off the job against employer rules was unprotected, since the employers could not control immigration policy.

Sometimes an employer does have power over a government policy—for instance, if the employer is actively involved in lobbying over that policy, like in a recent case where taxi drivers protested against their employer, a Las Vegas cab company, for lobbying for more medallions, which would put more drivers on the road and reduce their pay. Still, the takeaway is that you should always try to make sure your protest is about a tangible workplace policy. For instance, if you want to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, you could center your protest around a demand that the employer not conduct voluntary I-9 audits.

One last thing to remember is that if an employer has a rule that limits political speech at work, it has to be neutral on its face and neutrally applied. If you are fired for violating an employer attendance policy to attend a rally against Trump’s immigration policies, but another coworker who also violated the attendance policy to attend a Trump rally is unscathed, then the boss has violated the law by failing to apply work rules neutrally and you should contact an attorney or the NLRB to report the violation.

Step 3: Build solidarity at work and in the community

Nothing protects you more than the support and solidarity of your coworkers and community. Collective action is a time-honored and battle-tested tactic. The more people support you, the more the boss will be afraid to retaliate against you. In the Fight for $15 campaign, organizers perfected the art of the "walk back." After one of their now famous strike days, community members, including clergy and local politicians, would walk striking worker back to fast food restaurants in a show of community power. Build relationships at work and in your community to prepare for the fight ahead. Nothing is stronger than people power.


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Sam Wheeler is a Pennsylvania labor lawyer who has previously worked in electoral politics and in the legal departments of several national unions. Leo Gertner is a labor lawyer in Washington, D.C., who previously worked as a grievance representative for janitors in Boston.

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