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Workers Win Battle Over Employer Crackdowns on Social Media

A grocery store chain threatened to fire workers for talking about their jobs on Facebook and Twitter--but the workers took their fight to the NLRB, and won.


Two labor unions representing workers at supermarket chains are reporting success in efforts to protect their members from employers who want to impose restrictive rules on the use of social media outside the workplace.

Leaders of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the Teamsters have successfully backed down a large multinational conglomerate that attempted to impose such restrictions on more than 100,000 workers across the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, union officials said.  Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have resulted in the New York-based unit of the company withdrawing the disputed policy, and a settlement of similar complaints is imminent in the Baltimore area, they said.

The fight erupted late last year when supermarket chains owned by the Dutch retailing conglomerate Royal Ahold began demanding that employees sign a “Social Policy Guidelines” document that warned of dire consequences if workers used social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to communicate too freely about their jobs. The grocery chains—Stop & Shop in New England/New York, Giant Food in the Mid-Atlantic, Martin’s Food Markets in Virginia, and a separate home delivery service called Peapod—threatened disciplinary action, including possible dismissal, if employees refused to sign the document or violated any of the guidelines.

For Jeff Armstrong, a five-year employee at the Giant store in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the threat of dismissal for refusing to sign was startling. “I couldn’t believe it. They called us in and made us sit down in front of a terminal. They said ‘Read this, then sign it.’ They told us you had to sign right then and there, and that if you didn’t sign, you could be fired,” Armstrong said. Feeling pressured, he reluctantly signed.

But Armstrong grew angry as he discussed the humiliating incident with co-workers and reconsidered it in his own mind. A UFCW member, he talked to his shop steward and other union representatives. Impatient for action and determined to assert his own rights, he ultimately took a courageous step and personally filed a complaint against Giant with the NLRB regional office in Baltimore.

 He didn’t know it at the time, but complaints were already starting to pile up at NLRB offices. Ritchie Brooks, president of Teamsters Local 730 in Washington, D.C., was hearing stories similar to Armstrong’s from his members at a Giant warehouse in the Maryland suburbs.

“I told the guys not to sign anything. They (Giant) can’t pull this shit. It was retaliation, plain and simple. They did it (imposed the social media policy) because in 2010-2011 we fought them on the contract,” Brooks said, referring to heated contract talks in which Giant has sought to cut Teamster jobs in the area.

Brooks quickly filed an NLRB complaint and was joined by two other Teamster locals in the region that also have contracts with Giant. Filing a separate complaint was UFCW Local 400, which represents thousands of Giant employees in Maryland and Virginia. Significantly, Local 400 is also involved in nascent efforts to organize workers in the Martin’s Food Markets chain, which is one of several non-union operations under the Ahold umbrella.

Meanwhile, the same issues were coming to a head in the New York area. Tony Speelman, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1500, represents about 5,500 Stop & Shop employees in New York City and its suburbs. He says he received dozens of reports from members when Stop & Shop sought to impose the social media guidelines in a way virtually identical to Giant. In March Local 1500 filed an NLRB complaint, charging that the guidelines were a violation of federal labor law and of the civil rights of workers, he said.

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