Workers Win Facebook Fight Against Huge Supermarket Chain

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.

“ It is our belief that Stop & Shop has implemented a policy that is vague, overbroad and in violation of the civil rights of our members employed at their stores. Furthermore they did so without first bargaining with our union. That action alone is in violation of federal labor law,” Speelman stated in announcing the complaint.

If not in agreement with Speelman, Stop & Shop executives at least recognized they had a legal problem. Last month, the guidelines were withdrawn and are currently under review, Speelman says.

Contacted by Working In These Times for comment, Ahold USA spokeswoman Tracy Pawelski said the company would not make anyone available for a telephone interview to discuss the policy. Separate offices for Giant and Stop & Shop also declined to discuss the matter, and refused or ignored repeated requests for copies of the disputed guidelines.  Stop & Shop spokeswoman Arlene Putterman insisted that new social media guidelines are now in effect, but wouldn’t say what they were or how they are different than those that had been withdrawn.

In any event, a settlement of the charges in NLRB’s Baltimore region appears to be imminent, according to NLRB spokeswoman Shelly Skinner. Documents have been circulated among all the parties to the complaints, Skinner said, and the NLRB is taking the position that the language of the Giant policy is overly broad. The labor agency also sees merit in the charge that the policy could chill the exercise of the employees’ protected rights, she said. Armstrong added that his understanding of the settlement is that Giant will no longer threaten dismissal for employees who refuse to sign the policy document.

For UFCW, this victory is part of a larger struggle taking place in the realm of social media, according to Amber Sparks, director of new media at the union’s international headquarters in Washington, D.C. The union is using social media, especially Facebook, as a way to connect workers with each other and their union, she said. These efforts are provoking reactions from employers like Giant who see Facebook campaigns for fair labor contracts, or new organizing initiatives, as a threat, she said.

For Armstrong, his experience has given him a unique perspective on the NLRB, which yesterday released its latest report on employer social media policies, and on the political fights that have engulfed the agency since President Barack Obama took office.

“When I read these stories about the NLRB, it makes my skin crawl,” Armstrong says. “I have nothing but the highest regard for the NLRB people I’ve worked with. There is no other agency that is there to protect employees, and that is why the companies get so upset.  As far as I am concerned the NLRB people are wonderful—they are there for the employee when there is no place else to go.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on June 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.