Prosecutors with a federal labor board are alleging that Amazon-owned Whole Foods illegally barred employees from wearing “Black Lives Matter” masks during the pandemic and then punished those who did.
The grocery chain upheld rules regarding employee appearance that prohibited staff members from displaying BLM messaging, according to a complaint filed Friday by the National Labor Relations Board’s San Francisco regional director on behalf of the agency’s general counsel, according to a Bloomberg report.
In addition, Whole Foods stands accused of sending home, firing, or otherwise punishing staffers around the country last year for wearing BLM masks, pins, and other attire, the lawsuit states.
But the company pushed back on the complaint and said it had a right to decide what employees can and cannot wear while at work.
“Our dress code policy is designed to ensure we are giving Team Members a workplace and customers a shopping experience focused entirely on excellent service and high-quality food,” the chain said in a statement. “We do not believe we should compromise that experience by introducing any messages on uniforms, regardless of the content, that shift the focus away from our mission.”
The right of workers to collectively engage in actions that are related to workplace issues is covered and protected by federal labor laws, but it isn’t clear if a company’s rules regarding political messaging on attire are out of bounds.
That said, Democrats now leading the NLRB have indicated that they will take a much more activist view of those protections than did their predecessors under the Trump administration, Bloomberg reported.
According to Friday’s complaint, NLRB attorneys argued that by banning BLM messaging, Whole Foods improperly restricted employees from exerting legal rights to take part “in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection.”
“Issues of racial harassment and discrimination are central to employees’ working conditions, and the National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to advocate for change,” said Jill Coffman, the NLRB regional director in San Francisco, in a statement. “Through this complaint, we seek to enforce the act and protect workers’ rights to speak up about these important issues.”
The complaint said that employees in 10 states were improperly told to either remove Black Lives Matter items or were punished for not doing so. Those states are California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
In August 2020, Whole Foods employees in Portland, Ore., walked off the job in solidarity with an employee who was told they could not wear handmade “Racism has no place here” button because it violated the company’s dress code.
At the time, the employee, Dylan Woodruff, 23, told a local publication, “The words on his button are also printed on banners that Whole Foods Market has hung in its stores and printed on its website.”
The dress code “bans any visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising that are not company-related, on any article of clothing,’” Fox Business reported.
But in September, the grocery chain caused another stir after a social media user posted a tweet showing one location that had posted a banner over its entrance that read, “Racism has no place here. We support the black community.”
Another user added, “In 2020 a group of Whole Foods employees wore shirts with the phrase ‘racism has no place here’ and were told to change their shirts or go home. Fast forward to today Whole Foods, a grocery store that (to my knowledge) has no stores in predominantly Black spaces has this up.”
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