Following an unsuccessful effort to unionize franchise restaurants of the Jimmy John’s chain around the Minneapolis area, run by a firm named MikLin, the Industrial Workers of the World union (“Wobblies”) began a second campaign, as John Hauge explains at Minnesota Employer:
Part of the campaign involved putting up posters that called into question the healthfulness of sandwiches prepared in MikLin’s shops. The posters erroneously stated that employees were not allowed to call in sick, and implied that persons eating the sandwiches risked illness by doing so. Several employees supporting the campaign met with MikLin to demand that it provide sick pay to employees, and threatened to put the posters up all over the Twin Cities. The union also issued a press release entitled “Jimmy John’s Workers Blow the Whistle on Unhealthy Working Conditions.”
In a 1953 case called NLRB v. Electrical Workers Local 1229 (Jefferson Standard), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although federal labor law in general forbids employers to dismiss workers for union advocacy, it makes an exception for expressions of “disloyalty”, as in the case of “a sharp, public, disparaging attack upon the quality of the company’s product and its business policies, in a manner reasonably calculated to harm the company’s reputation and reduce its income.” In those cases, the Court ruled, an employer was still free to dismiss the disloyal workers, union activists or no.
You might think that would fit the facts of the Jimmy John’s case quite well, especially given the falsity of the assertion that the restaurant workers couldn’t take sick leave. But an administrative law judge at the NLRB has disagreed, ordering back pay and reinstatement for the dismissed union workers and dismissing the falsity as mere “hyperbole.”
Hauge at Minnesota Employer calls the decision “creative” and warns readers that (assuming the decision is not overturned at the board level) the NLRB may be increasingly inclined to extend protection against “retaliation” to a wider swath of “untrue, malicious and/or disparaging” talk during union campaigns. At least when it comes from the pro-union side.