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Second Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Starbucks’ “One Union Button” Policy

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May 17, 2012

By Chris Johlie

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has taken some high profile hits in the federal courts in the past few weeks. As we reported recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit put the NLRB’s notice posting rule on hold. Earlier this week, a federal judge also halted, for now, the NLRB’s “quickie election” rule. Late last week, the NLRB suffered another defeat when the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit refused to enforce an NLRB decision that found Starbucks had violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by prohibiting its employees from wearing more than one pro-union button on their uniforms.

Several Starbucks stores in Manhattan were the subject of a well-publicized union organizing attempt by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In response to the IWW organizing campaign, Starbucks instituted, among other policies, a dress code that permitted only buttons or pins issued by Starbucks “and reasonably-sized-and-placed buttons or pins that identify a particular labor organization or a partner’s support for that organization, except if they interfere with safety or threaten to harm customer relations or otherwise unreasonably interfere with Starbucks [sic] public image.” Although not clear from its text, Starbucks management interpreted the policy to mean that employees could wear only one pro-union button on their uniforms and enforced it accordingly.

NLRB found the “one union button” policy unlawful because it determined that allowing employees to wear multiple union buttons would not seriously harm Starbucks’ interest in its employees’ image. The court disagreed and thought that the NLRB had overreached. Citing the NLRB’s own precedent as support, the court determined that Starbucks’ interest in its public image justified the “one union button” limitation and that the policy struck the appropriate balance between employee rights and the company’s interest in preserving its image as conveyed by the messages on buttons or pins worn by its employees.

Although the Starbucks’ policy at issue in this case was a bit unusual in that it expressly allowed employees to wear a union button, the case is important because it confirms that an employer may implement workplace policies to advance its public image even if doing so results in some limitation on employee rights under the NLRA. 

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