Winning Workers’ Right to Film and Record – the Backstory

Labor Starbucks Unions

Pearl River      Don’t be surprised if your boss starts trying to add a new rule in your workplace to restrict your access to your cellphone.  He may claim it has to do with your concentration on the job, the customers, dangerous machinery and other reasons, but there may be a new worry the boss has.  He may be worried you will take a picture of a workplace hazard or record a supervisor’s bullying of a co-worker, instructions to break the law, or your usual standard off-the-shelf anti-union rap.  Now with a new decision by the NLRB, he’s right to worry, because workers involved in concerted activity either in organizing a union or gaining evidence to protest or reform workplace conditions with their co-workers have a right to film and record these situations now.

The backstory is interesting, because this case involved some Starbucks’ workers, but actually predated the recent success that Workers’ United / SEIU has had in organizing hundreds of Starbucks stores. The credit actually goes to an independent, fledgling organizing effort in Philadelphia called Baristas United.  As Labor Notes summarizes the case:

A February 13 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) clarifies whether employees can be disciplined for recording conversations with management officials. The ruling (372 NLRB No. 50) involved two Starbucks stores in Philadelphia and members of a rank-and-file group called Baristas United. Two leaders of the group were fired for ostensibly violating established store policy by secretly recording conversations with supervisors on their cell phones. During the conversations, the employees were illegally warned about making negative statements about Starbucks. Starbucks also charged them with using their phones to take pictures of the store communications log. In addition to violating store policies, Starbucks also claimed that the employees violated a Pennsylvania state law, which makes it a felony to electronically record conversations without the consent of all parties.

No matter what Starbucks claimed repeatedly, the NLRB, not at the regional level, but on review by the full board, ruled that state law doesn’t trump federal worker protections when it comes to collective efforts to organize a union or prepare for concerted activity. I can’t count the times that workers have come to me wanting to “I spy” with a secret recording or snapshot.  We’ve sometimes bought tiny hidden cameras to enable workers to get the goods, even knowing it might not stand up, but realizing it would at least embolden the workers and advance the organizing.  This decision could be huge in allowing workers everywhere to collectively police and protect their work force while they self-organize or build a union.  Bosses will need to be very careful to fly right and obey the law, because they could be on candid camera anytime a worker is armed with camera, recorder, or phone.

We all need to get the word out, because, not surprisingly, this has not been front page news.  I only know because the worker activist and volunteer organizer who filed this winning charge for those two fired Starbucks workers with the NLRB in Philly a couple of years ago happens to be David Thompson.  For more than a year, David has worked with ACORN and our family of organizations in New Orleans, as ACORN’s research director and developed several reports that we have featured in Social Policy on rural electric cooperatives and hospital pricing transparency.  Luckily for us, he’s also volunteered as an organizer with several of our Local 100 units in New Orleans, including at the Regional Transit Authority and Delgado Community College.  Hearing from David about this NLRB decision from his work in the past, let all of us know how really fortunate we are, and how proud we are to see the fruits of his labor shared now with workers throughout the United States.  Like the country-and-western song say, “that’s something to be proud of!”