HR Strange But True!
March 22, 2007

Why would a cartoon character cause dissension in the National Labor Relations Board?

Well, if you saw a "wet rat" sticker with Calvin, of "Calvin and Hobbes" comic fame, urinating on a rat labeled "Nonunion," would you think it was "vulgar" or "obscene"? It's just that question that recently split the members of the NLRB and raised some interesting questions about "workplace culture" and the law.

Travis Williams, an Iron Workers Union "salt" (a paid union representative who seeks employment with a nonunion employer to organize from within), wore such a sticker on his hardhat to a worksite of the nonunion Leiser Contruction Company in Kansas, where he began handing out union authorization cards.

The company owner, Lloyd Leiser, told Williams to take "that sticker" off, or he would not allow him to work. Actually, Leiser said he didn't want any "union bull****," but the implication was that if the sticker were taken off the helmet, Williams could stay.

Employees generally have a protected right to wear union insignia at work under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act unless the insignia is "vulgar or obscene."

Obviously, NLRB members Robert J. Battista and Peter C. Schaumber thought the "wet rat" sticker was "unquestionably vulgar and obscene," although the sticker, with Calvin urinating on other types of symbols, is a common sight on the back of pickup trucks.

However, NLRB member Dennis P. Walsh dissented, saying that the sticker can't be considered "vulgar" because vulgarity at the Leiser Construction Company was "commonplace" among workers, supervisors, and management. So "the sticker does not appear to be out of line with the workplace culture," in Walsh's opinion, adding that the company also had no dress code or requirements.

The majority disagreed with Walsh, saying that even if vulgarity was commonplace, it did not restrict Leiser from "restricting vulgar or obscene insignia" that would be viewed by other employees for 8 hours a day. The majority also cited a previous case where Southwestern Bell was permitted to ban a T-shirt saying "Ma Bell Is a Cheap Mother."

Source: Leiser Const. LLC, 349 N.L.R.B . No. 41, (2/28/07)

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