Union sues grocery chain over social media policy

Policy is 'impermissibly vague, overbroad' and violates employees' rights: Union
By Jessica Dye
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 03/30/2012

NEW YORK — A union representing employees at a New York grocery chain has asked federal labour regulators to investigate whether the store's new social media policy is overbroad and violates workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 filed a petition this week with the National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn, N.Y., alleging that Stop & Shop's policy was "impermissibly vague, overbroad and violated Section 7 rights of employees" under the act, which protects the right to organize and bargain.

The policy, rolled out in July, forbids employees from disclosing confidential information — including salaries — on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, and from discrediting the store's practices or products, according to a lawyer for the union, Patricia McConnell of Meyer Suozzi English & Klein.

It also requires employees to inform managers if their colleagues violate the policy, and workers face disciplinary action — up to and including termination — if they break the rules, McConnell said.

The union also alleges that Stop & Shop put the policy into effect without consulting it, in violation of its collective bargaining rights.

The union, which represents approximately 5,500 Stop & Shop employees at 45 stores in and around New York City, is unaware of any employees who have been disciplined under the new policy, McConnell said. But the "overbroad" nature of the policy could chill workers' right to discuss pay or simply to gripe about their employer, she said.

"The mere maintenance of the policy violates the law, whether it's enforced in discipline," McConnell said.

Stop & Shop spokeswoman Amy Murphy-St. Laurent said that the store's policy is meant simply to remind employees to use "reasonable guidelines" when posting to social media sites. The policy also states that the guidelines are not to be used in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), she said.

"Stop & Shop does not wish to interfere with the private lives of its associates, even when they are on-line," Murphy-St. Laurent said in an email.

The NLRB will investigate the petition and decide whether to bring formal charges before an administrative law judge. The union said it is considering meeting with New York lawmakers to seek legislative changes to address its concerns.

The NLRB has moved quickly in recent months to help interpret employers' obligations under the NLRA when it comes to social-media policies, said Michael Schmidt, a member of the labour and employment practice at Cozen O'Connor.

A handful of cases have already worked their way through the system, but many employers nonetheless are waiting to see how the NLRB's ban on "overbroad" social media policies is interpreted by appellate courts, Schmidt said.

In January, the NLRB issued a report detailing some recent enforcement actions that dealt with emerging social media issues in the workplace. In at least six cases, the NLRB found that social media policies contained "overbroad" or unlawful language that illegally limited employees' comments about co-workers or their workplace.

"Most of the cases where charges have been filed get settled pretty quickly," Schmidt said. "This is a hot issue right now, and many companies don't want to have their names attached to one of these guinea-pig rulings."

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