Employee Has a Right to Wear ‘Slave’ T-Shirt to Work
An administrative law judge held on Aug. 14 that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act by disciplining a worker for wearing a t-shirt to work that said “Slave.”
“Slave” Sent Home
Mark Gluch was working as an equipment operator at the Alma Products Company, which manufactures automotive components at a plant in Alma, Mich. Workers at the plant had first created the shirts, which featured the word “Slave,” a ball and chain, and the employee’s time clock number, back in 1993 in an effort to show worker solidarity and “send the company a message,” according to the opinion.
Some had worn the shirt to work over the years, and in 2006 the company responded by implementing a dress code that prohibited displaying “words or images derogatory to the Company.”
Years went by without incident, but in May 2012, when Gluch chose to wear his shirt during a particularly contentious period of contract negotiations between Alma and the workers’ union, a unit of the United Steel Workers, the company took action.
Saying the shirt violated its dress code policy and insisting that it was racially offensive to his black co-workers and any customers who might visit the plan, Gluch’s supervisors demanded he turn it inside out or go home. He went home and was denied pay for that day.
Employers Can’t Chill Speech
There was no evidence, however, that the t-shirt really was racially offensive, said the judge who heard Gluch’s union’s challenge to Alma’s action in court. He pointed to a long history of employees using the word to criticize their working conditions and said the word was not always about race.
In fact, the shirt was a direct comment on the working conditions at the plant. An employer violates the NLRA if it maintains a work rule that reasonably tends to chill employees in the exercise of their rights to engage in union and/or protected concerted activity.
As a result, the judge ruled in favor of the union, ordering the company to pay Gluch back, with interest, for the wages he lost when the company sent him home. The judge also told Alma to do away with its unlawfully overbroad dress code policy.
Right to Comment on Work Conditions
“The shirt was protected speech, because it criticized the company’s proposed wage cut,” explains Emma Rebhorn, assistant general counsel at the USW in Pittsburgh. And it wasn’t just Gluch’s rights that were at issue.
“The company violated the entire workforce’s rights when it maintained a policy that prohibited employees from expressing messages that were ‘disparaging to the company,’ because we all have a federally-protected right to communicate with our co-workers regarding problems or concerns at work,” says Rebhorn. “The company’s policy had a chilling effect on that right.”
The NLRA protects workers who take action for their mutual aid and protection, explains Rebhorn. “That could be through a union, or it could be independently. Whenever a company tries to silence its workers through dress code restrictions, when the workers are engaging in protected speech, the company is violating federal law.”
While companies are allowed to ban clothing that displays “abusive or profane” language, she adds, every rule must be considered in context.
“This case is important because it reaffirms everyone’s rights at work,” Rebhorn says. “We’re increasingly faced with employers who want to control everything about their workers, including their speech and even their clothes. It’s crucial for workers to know that they have a voice and shouldn’t be afraid to speak up for each other and for themselves.”