Generally, employees have the right to wear union insignia in the workplace. But in some limited circumstances in health care settings, employers can restrict that right if the restriction is “necessary to avoid disruption of health care operations or disturbance of patients.”
It’s up to to show that disruption. As the following case demonstrates, that means more than mere conjecture about upset patients. It means presenting solid evidence that patients have complained about union members’ buttons, or that some other serious consequence has resulted.
Recent case: When nurses at an acute care hospital were in the middle of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, they began wearing union buttons with messages such as “Together Everyone Achieves More” and “RNs Demand Safe Staffing.” For several months, the nurses wore the buttons without management objections.
Then the nurses got a memo from management telling them that they had to remove the buttons that addressed “safe staffing.” According to the memo, the button “disparages [the hospital] by giving the impression that we do not have safe staffing. We cannot permit the wearing of these buttons, because patients and family members may fear that the Medical Center is unable to provide adequate care.”
The nurses filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital. A three-member National Labor Relations Board panel concluded the hospital had shown the restriction was necessary to avoid patient disturbance. The nurses appealed.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, concluding that the hospital hadn’t presented solid evidence that patients had actually been disturbed. Management’s fears or opinions aren’t enough. (Washington State Nurses Association v. NLRB, No. 06-74917, 9th Cir., 2008)
Advice: Labor negotiations and unfair labor charges can eat up tremendous time and resources. Don’t act on the spur of the moment or out of frustration. Before doing anything that could be interpreted as an unfair labor practice, ask your attorney to assess the risk and explain your options.
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