Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Racist comments as protected concerted activity (really!)


Racism at work cannot be tolerated, right? So here’s a quick quiz. Assume you hear a white employee yelling the following at black co-workers:
  • “Hey, did you bring enough KFC for everyone?” and
  • “I smell fried chicken and watermelon!”
Do you: a) fire the offending employee; or b) brush it off? 

I’m going to lay pretty decent odds that most of you opted for choice “a.” Would you believe, though, that according to one NLRB judge, the answer depends on whether the racist employee is walking a picket line.

In Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. (6/5/15) [pdf], Administrative Law Judge Randazzo concluded that, while clearly racist, offensive, and inappropriate, the employer violated the NLRA when it fired the offending employee because he made the remarks in the context of a strike and there were no corresponding threats of violence:
Runion’s “KFC” and “fried chicken and watermelon” statements most certainly were racist, offensive, and reprehensible, but they were not violent in character, and they did not contain any overt or implied threats to replacement workers or their property. The statements were also unaccompanied by any threatening behavior or physical acts of intimidation by Runion towards the replacement workers in the vans.… The record evidence in this case does not establish that Runion’s statements were coercive or intimidating to the exercise of employees’ Section 7 rights, and it does not establish that the statements raised the likelihood of imminent physical confrontation.
Thus, an employee is justified, under the NLRA, to be as racist as he wants to be as long as: 1) the comments are made in the context of otherwise protected, concerted activity, and b) the comments are not accompanied by violence or overt threats of violence.

Although the breadth of the NLRB’s current iteration’s interpretation of “protected concerted activity” should surprise no one, I am stunned that this ALJ has gone this far. 
  1. No employee should be subjected to this type of abuse, picket line or no picket line, and it is shameful that this type of misconduct is condoned.
  2. Employers should not be forced into a Hobson’s Choice between the NLRA and Title VII. Retaining the offender may save the employer from liability under the NLRA, but it won’t do the employer any favors if the victim pushes the issue under Title VII.
If nothing else, this case is a scary reminder of how far the NLRB and its judges will go to fine protected concerted activity. Employers, you are warned/


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