Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Protected freedom of speech for workers on Facebook?

November 12th, 2010 | Richard Negri

Image: Richard NegriIn an era where it’s not unheard of for an employee’s use of social media to lead to their dismissal, one question that comes up more frequently these days regarding a worker’s rights is “Can I say that on Facebook?

This week, the National Labor Relations Board alleged that a Connecticut company acted illegally when they fired an employee after she bad-mouthed her supervisor on Facebook. The labor board charged that the company wrongfully denied the employee union representation during an investigatory interview, as well as “maintained and enforced an overly broad blogging and Internet posting policy.”

CAUTION: This Is Not A Green Light To Trash Talk Your Boss on Facebook

This complaint issued by the NLRB should not be interpreted to suggest that anything employees say on Facebook about their employer will be protected. It doesn’t do that.

Although the National Labor Relations Act bars employers from penalizing their employees for talking about workplace conditions (like wages) or forming a union with their coworkers, as noted on the NLRB’s own Facebook page and on Mashable, Facebook comments can lose protected status depending on a number of factors.

  1. Where the discussion takes place
  2. The subject matter
  3. The nature of the outburst
  4. Whether the comments were provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice

Although workers’ speech online is still a relatively new medium for the labor board, their position on this case presents the real possibility that workers won’t have to fear speaking up, being heard, and communicating about work issues on Facebook in the future.

As The New York Times‘ Steven Greenhouse notes:

This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.

Implications for Online Organizing

Educating, mobilizing and organizing workers online is what our union does to assist traditional boots-on–the-ground union work. There are many tools that enable us to do our work as online organizers, and we certainly rely heavily on social media.

Why? Because with social media platforms like Facebook, we can help establish an environment where workers can freely talk to one another about their issues at work–whatever they may be. This is not so different than member-to-member organizing, except it takes place online and doesn’t require workers to be face-to-face in order to connect with one another.

The Bottom Line: As this investigation moves forward and the January 2011 hearing draw closer, we anticipate push back from the opposition. However, whatever happens, the outcome of this case will go a long way toward defining what employees can and cannot do when it comes to online communications and airing their work issues with their co-workers on Facebook.

This article was originally posted on SEIU.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

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One Response to “Protected freedom of speech for workers on Facebook?”

  1. Charley Says:

    I want to to thank you for this fantastic read!!
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