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Employers Must Let Employees Dress Like Inmates

What would you think if you opened your front door and saw a man wearing a shirt saying “Inmate?”  Would you hesitate to let him in your house?  Even if you let him in, would you be wary of his motives?  Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”) ordered AT&T to let their technicians wear union-provided striped t-shirts bearing the word “Prisoner” to customers’ homes.  

AT&T was in union negotiations with the Communications Workers of America (“CWA”).  In an effort to put pressure on AT&T, the CWA decided to have its union members wear special t-shirts.  The front read “Inmate #” with an empty box below the words.  The back had black and white vertical stripes with the words “Prisoner of AT$T.”  AT&T employees started wearing these shirts to work, including technicians who visited customers’ homes.  AT&T was worried the t-shirts would scare customers and cause customers to lose faith in AT&T’s brand.  It suspended about 183 workers who refused to stop wearing the t-shirts.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge, claiming the Company was violating the employee’s rights under Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  Generally, under the NLRA, employees are permitted to wear union insignia to work absent special circumstances.  The Company argued it was reasonable to ask employees not to wear these t-shirts because the t-shirts would confuse customers and hurt business.  The union argued there was no way a customer would actually think the person at their door was a prisoner.  The employees were wearing AT&T name badges on their shirts and arrived at times previously scheduled with the customers. 

The Board, in a 2-1 decision, agreed with the union, finding AT&T unnecessarily prohibited the employees from wearing these t-shirts.  It agreed no customer would be confused or frightened that an inmate, not an AT&T technician, was standing at their door.  The Board felt customers would understand the t-shirt to be a labor protest.  The dissenting Board member said it was unreasonable to think an average customer would look at the employees’ shirt and realize it involved a labor dispute.  Instead, customers would find the employees to be unprofessional and may lose faith in AT&T.  This could have a serious effect on AT&T’s marketing and customer relations. 

In the end, the union accomplished its goal – it provoked a response from AT&T and disrupted business.  This decision demonstrates the Board’s inability to leave its ivory tower.  Such a strict interpretation of the NLRA is not practical in the real world.  The fact that AT&T could suffer serious financial harm as a result of this decision seems irrelevant.  

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on union-related matters and provides union-free training.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.