US agency: “illegal” for Tesla to prevent employees from wearing union shirts

The logo of carmaker Tesla is seen at a branch in Bern, Switzerland October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

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Aug 29 (Reuters) – The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Monday said it was illegal for Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) to ban employees from wearing shirts bearing union badges, ruling in a dispute of 2017 between the electric car maker and the United Auto Workers (UAW).

NLRB President Lauren McFerran said the decision reaffirms that “any attempt to restrict the wearing of union attire or badges is presumed unlawful and – consistent with Supreme Court precedent – an employer has an increased onus to justify attempts to limit this important right”.

In a 3-2 decision, the NLRB said that when companies interfere with employees’ rights to display union badges, the employer “bears the burden of establishing special circumstances” and the majority “concluded that Tesla had not established any special circumstances in this case”.

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Tesla and the UAW did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In addition to ruling on the Tesla case, the NLRB also overruled a 2019 decision by the agency involving Walmart Inc (WMT.N), saying the earlier decision “ignored decades of board precedent.”

The NLRB’s previous decision said Walmart’s rationale for restricting union badges on the sales floor to improve the shopping experience for customers and prevent theft or vandalism was legitimate. The NLRB in 2019, however, acknowledged the potential interference with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The 2019 ruling set a precedent for employers across the country to have more control over limiting union dress.

Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The NLRB said some Tesla employees assembling electric vehicles at its Fremont, Calif., plant wore shirts with union logos during a UAW organizing drive in 2017. At that time, the UAW sought to represent workers at the Tesla factory in Fremont, who are not unionized.

Tesla’s “team dress” policy required employees to wear black shirts printed with the Tesla logo or their own black t-shirts without a logo. The NLRB concluded that this implicitly prohibited employees from substituting any shirt with a logo or emblem, including one bearing union badges.

The NLRB said that before 2017, Tesla production workers routinely wore shirts that weren’t black or had unrelated Tesla logos and emblems. On Monday, he ordered Tesla to roll back its policy banning employees from wearing black union shirts.

This isn’t the first clash between Tesla and the NLRB.

In 2021, the NLRB said a 2018 tweet by CEO Elon Musk, in which he threatened Tesla employees who formed a union would lose their stock options, was illegal and should be removed.

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Reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo in New York; Writing by David Shepardson Editing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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