WASHINGTON -- The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced today that it has filed a complaint alleging that a Chicago-area car dealership wrongfully fired an employee after he posted commentary critical of the company on his Facebook page. The complaint is the latest in a string of moves by the labor board indicating that it wants to clarify workers' rights when it comes to Facebook and labor law.
In the Illinois case, a car salesman at Karl Knauz BMW, in Lake Bluff, took to Facebook to complain about the lame food and drinks served at a dealership event promoting a new BMW model. He and a few co-workers apparently felt that Sam's Club hot dogs and bottled water were no way to hype a luxury car -- and they thought their sales might suffer because of it. The salesman's critical commentary included photographic evidence of the unremarkable snacks.
At the behest of management, the employee pulled down his post the following week, but he was later fired for it anyway. In its complaint, the NLRB counsel argues that the Facebook posting is "protected concerted activity" -- that's labor-speak for things your employer can't retaliate against you for.
The case suggests, once again, that the labor board views Facebook and other social networking sites as a kind of open forum where employees should feel free to discuss working conditions without fear of being punished.
Just last week, the labor board ruled that a Buffalo, N.Y., nonprofit wrongfully fired five of its workers after they criticized their employer in postings on Facebook. In that case, a worker at Hispanics United hopped on Facebook and floated a colleague's allegation that employees at the nonprofit didn’t do enough to help their clients. The post drew some heated commentary from other employees, and management later canned five of them, saying their comments amounted to harassment of the employee who originally criticized co-workers.
In a case brought by the NLRB last fall, an employee at a Connecticut ambulance company was fired after disparaging her boss on Facebook. The case was settled in February, and the company, American Medical Response, agreed to no longer discipline employees for discussing their working conditions on Facebook or elsewhere.
An NLRB spokesperson says that in the wake of the American Medical Response case, the agency has received a number of complaints regarding firings due to Facebook posts.
Barring a settlement between the car dealership and the feds, the Illinois case will go before an administrative law judge in July.
When asked about the complaint over the phone, a manager at Karl Knauz BMW said, "I don't know anything about that."
UPDATE: According to trade magazine Dealer, a lawyer for the dealership disputes the NLRB's complaint, saying the worker was fired for reasons other than criticizing his employer in a Facebook posting.
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