NLRB protects Facebook time for workers

WASHINGTON – In a ruling involving a Watertown, Conn., sports bar whose owners shorted their workers on state withholding taxes – leaving them cursing and stuck with unanticipated bills – the National Labor Relations Board moved to protect workers’ Facebook discussions and posts. It also ordered the bar to restore the two workers it fired to their jobs.

And it told employers they could not promulgate and enforce overly broad policies regulating what their workers say on the workers’ own Facebook accounts.

At issue in the case, involving the Triple Play Sports Bar and workers Jillian Sanzone and Vincent Spinella, is whether workers’ comments on Facebook are “protected concerted activity” under labor law. The 3-member NLRB panel ruled they are and made that general.

The case is important because workers increasingly use Facebook and other social media to communicate about working conditions, as well as to organize. If employers can censor Facebook, blogs and the like, and retaliate against workers for their comments – the bar fired Sanzone and Spinella – then workers’ rights are chilled, the NLRB panel decided.

In this case, Sanzone, Spinella and other workers found out almost four years ago the bar shorted the withholding, when they wound up with big state tax liabilities. They raised the issue with management, but also on the social medium. They were, understandably, upset.

Former worker Jamie LaFrance started the dialogue on his Facebook page in January 2011, saying that as a result of Triple Play’s withholding errors, he owed hundreds of dollars in state taxes. “I owe too. Such an asshole,” Sanzone replied.

Spinella “liked” LaFrance’s update. “Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money…Wtf!!!!” he said. Later posts were similar. All the workers are non-union.

The postings leaked to management. Owner Ralph DelBuono called Sanzone and Spinella in, gave them “a complete and unwelcome surprise” by revealing knowledge of the postings, and fired them. He also told Spinella the bar might pursue him legally.

The agency’s administrative law judge found the workers engaged in “protected concerted activity” by discussing worksite problems on Facebook, that threatening legal action breaks labor law, too, and that the employee handbook’s ban on comments about the bar on social media was too broad.

The bar said that “when Internet blogging, chat room discussions, e-mail, text messages, or other forms of communication extend to…inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers, the employee may be violating the law and is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

The NLRB ordered the bar to rehire the two with back pay – including taxes – to withdraw the legal threat and other discipline and to toss the handbook’s offending sections.

Photo: Anger is the most influential emotion on social media. (AP)



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.