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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Federal judge takes NLRB to task for rules that protect racist and sexist workplace misconduct

Of all of the decisions the NLRB has handed down in the past eight years, those that let striking employees lob racists and sexist bombs at replacement workers crossing picket lines are the most offensive to me.

Consolidated Communications v. NLRB (D.C. Cir. 9/13/16) is one such case.

More compelling than the decision, however, is the concurring opinion written by Judge Patricia Millett, in which she calls on the NLRB to carry out its mission to protect the rights of all employees, not just those who happen to be walking a picket line. How can a picket line magically convert misconduct that is “illegal in every other corner of the workplace” into the “unpleasantries that are just part and parcel of the contentious environment and heated language that ordinarily accompany strike activity,” she asks? 

Her opinion is so well written, I’ve excerpted almost all of it below for your reading and consideration.

I write separately, though, to convey my substantial concern with the too-often cavalier and enabling approach that the Board’s decisions have taken toward the sexually and racially demeaning misconduct of some employees during strikes. Those decisions have repeatedly given refuge to conduct that is not only intolerable by any standard of decency, but also illegal in every other corner of the workplace. The sexually and racially disparaging conduct that Board decisions have winked away encapsulates the very types of demeaning and degrading messages that for too much of our history have trapped women and minorities in a second-class workplace status.

While the law properly understands that rough words and strong feelings can arise in the tense and acrimonious world of workplace strikes, targeting others for sexual or racial degradation is categorically different. Conduct that is designed to humiliate and intimidate another individual because of and in terms of that person’s gender or race should be unacceptable in the work environment. Full stop.…

Nothing in the Board’s decisions has offered any plausible justification, and I can conceive of none, for concluding that the rights of workers—all workers—are protected by turning picket lines into free zones for sexually or racially abusive and demeaning conduct. Instead, the Board’s rulings dismiss such abhorrent behavior as “unpleasantries” that are just part and parcel of the contentious environment and heated language that ordinarily accompany strike activity.…

There is no question that Emily Post rules do not apply to a strike.…

So giving strikers a pass on zealous expressions of frustration and discontent makes sense. Heated words and insults? Understandable. Rowdy and raucous behavior? Sure, within lawful bounds. But conduct of a sexually or racially demeaning and degrading nature is categorically different. Calling a female co-worker a “whore” or exposing one’s genitals to her is not even remotely a “normal outgrowth[]” of strike-related emotions. In what possible way does propositioning her for sex advance any legitimate strike-related message? And how on earth can calling an African-American worker “nigger” be a tolerated mode of communicating worker grievances?

Such language and behavior have nothing to do with attempted persuasion about the striker’s cause. Nor do they convey any message about workplace injustices suffered, wrongs inflicted, employer mistreatment, managerial indifference, the causes of employee frustration and anger, or anything at all of relevance about working conditions or worker complaints. Indeed, such behavior is flatly forbidden in every other corner of the workplace because it is dangerously wrong and breathes new life into economically suffocating and dehumanizing discrimination that we have labored for generations to eliminate. Brushing that same behavior off when it occurs during a strike simply legitimates the entirely illegitimate, and it signals that, when push comes to shove, discriminatory and degrading stereotypes can still be a legitimate weapon in economic disputes.

And by the way, the Board is supposed to protect the rights of all employees covered by the Act.… Holding that such toxic behavior is a routine part of strikes signals to women and minorities both in the union and out that they are still not truly equals in the workplace or union hall. For when the most important labor/management battles arise and when the economic livelihood of the employer and the employees is on the line, the Board’s decisions say that racial and misogynistic epithets, degrading behavior, and race- and gender-based vilification are once again fair game.…

Nor do the Board’s decisions grapple with the enduring effects in the workplace of such noxious language and behavior. The assumption that such gender- and race-based attacks can be contained to the picket line blinks reality. It will often be quite hard for a woman or minority who has been on the receiving end of a spew of gender or racial epithets—who has seen the darkest thoughts of a co-worker revealed in a deliberately humiliating tirade—to feel truly equal or safe working alongside that employee again. Racism and sexism in the workplace is a poison, the effects of which can continue long after the specific action ends.…

Accordingly, if the Board’s decisions insist on letting the camel’s nose of racial and gender discrimination into the work environment, the Board should also think long and hard about measuring the “threats” associated with such sexually or racially degrading behavior from the perspective of a reasonable person in the target’s position, and how nigh impossible it is to cabin racism’s and sexism’s pernicious effects.…

To be sure, employees’ exercise of their statutory rights to oppose employer practices must be vigorously protected, and ample room must be left for powerful and passionate expressions of views in the heated context of a strike. But Board decisions’ repeated forbearance of sexually and racially degrading conduct in service of that admirable goal goes too far. After all, the Board is a component of the same United States Government that has fought for decades to root discrimination out of the workplace. Subjecting co-workers and others to abusive treatment that is targeted to their gender, race, or ethnicity is not and should not be a natural byproduct of contentious labor disputes, and it certainly should not be accepted by an arm of the federal government. It is 2016, and “boys will be boys” should be just as forbidden on the picket line as it is on the assembly line.

Bravo. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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