AT&T's (NYSE: T) ongoing battle with unions has taken another interesting turn: a federal appeals court ruled that the telco can prevent its Connecticut union field workers from wearing shirts that display the phrase "Prisoner of AT$T."
In 2009, union workers wore the shirts when they were engaged in a labor dispute with the telco. Nearly 200 employees were suspended for not removing the shirts.
A federal appeals court last Friday set aside a decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had sided with the technicians from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union in 2011.
AT&T, according to court documents, testified to the court that the shirts "could alarm or confuse customers, could cause customers to believe that AT&T employees were actually convicts, or could harm the company's public image more generally."
While the court recognized that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to wear union apparel at work, it said that there are situations where disparaging message could compromise its relationship with its customers or company image.
"Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to wear union apparel at work," wrote the court in its decision. "But under this Court's precedent and Board decisions, there is a 'special circumstances' exception to that general rule: A company may lawfully prohibit its employees from displaying messages on the job that the company reasonably believes may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image."
The court went on to say that "it was reasonable for AT&T to believe that the "Inmate/Prisoner" shirts may harm AT&T's relationship with its customers or its public image," so "AT&T lawfully prohibited its employees here from wearing the shirt."
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