Racist Picket Conduct Protected

By Bill Wright

The NLRB holds – famously now – that sexist and racist conduct on a picket line is protected from adverse action unless the conduct is also violent and coercive. Despite a shot across its bow in Consolidated Communications, Inc. v. NLRB, (D.C. Cir. 2016), the Board continues to force employers to ignore sexist and racist conduct, and the courts continue to defer to the NLRB on the issue.

In Cooper Tire & Runner Co. v. NLRB, No. 1602721 (8th Cir. August 8, 2017), a picketer yelled racist comments at a van carrying strike-breaking workers. Some number of the strike breakers were African American, and the picketer yelled references to fried chicken and watermelon. When the strike and lockout ended, the company did not hire the picketer back, citing his conduct as unrelated to the picketing activity. An arbitrator found the termination to be for good cause, but the NLRB disagreed, overruled the arbitrator, and found an unfair labor practice. The court agreed with the board. The picketer had his hands in his pockets, and there was no evidence the employees in the van heard the comments or felt threatened or coerced.

The call for the NLRB to recognize public standards of employee civility, even in strike conduct, grows however. In Consolidated Communication, the criticism of the Board’s policy came in a concurring opinion. In Cooper Tire, Sr. Judge C. Arlen Beam dissented altogether. Judge Beam called for the NLRB to recognize that “the racial epithets expelled by [the picketer] were not simply tolerated, impulsive behavior. They were expressions that tended to coerce and intimidate African American employees in the exercise of rights protected under the Act.”