Canada Employment and Immigration Union -
April 30, 2009

Your right to wear union buttons in the workplace

In 2005, PSAC members at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) wanted to send a message about job cuts that would affect the public, so they wore union buttons saying “You’ll miss us when we’re gone! 2006.” When the employer ordered them not to wear the buttons during working hours and in front of clients, they grieved. In the adjudication decision that followed, the employer was found guilty of violating the collective agreement and their grievances were allowed.

The seventy nine grievors alleged that the employer had violated article 19.01 of their collective agreement, which reads:

19.01 There shall be no discrimination, interference, restriction, coercion, harassment, intimidation, or any disciplinary action exercised or practiced with respect to an employee by reason of age, race, creed, colour, national origin, religious affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, family status, mental or physical disability, membership or activity in the Alliance, marital status or a conviction for which a pardon has been granted.

The grievors argued that wearing union buttons was “activity in the Alliance” that was protected by article 19.01. Before the adjudicator, the union recognized that the right to wear a button was not unlimited. Previous labour board decisions had made it clear that a button’s message was acceptable as long as it did not have a detrimental effect on the employer’s capacity to manage its operations or on its reputation. The message “You’ll miss us when we’re gone! 2006.” did not have these detrimental effects, the union maintained, and therefore members were protected by article 19.01.

For its part, the employer argued that at the time the buttons were worn, a firm decision had not been made on eliminating the information service and cash counters, and the jobs that went with them. The employer also maintained that the button’s message was that the public would not be well-served if the counter services were eliminated and that this would be damaging to the CRA’s image and reputation. It also argued that the button’s message was unclear and could lead to a number of interpretations.

The decision

In his decision, the adjudicator found that the button did not have a detrimental effect on the employer’s reputation or the management of its operations. This was critical to the union’s claim that the button’s message was legitimate.

Turning to the employer’s contention that the buttons were worn before the employer had made a final decision around the counter services, the adjudicator stated:

I do not see why the Alliance would need to wait for the decision to make the changes to be final before reacting. In my opinion, it was more logical for the Alliance to act as soon as it heard that the employer was considering making those changes.

As for the employer’s claim that the button’s message was unclear, the adjudicator had this to say:

I do not believe that is the case. The button read: “You’ll miss us when we’re gone! 2006” (Exhibit F-4). In my opinion, that message suggested that the employees wearing the button would no longer be providing their services in 2006. A button must be brief, and thus, one cannot expect it to be absolutely clear. Even if the message on the button had been ambiguous, it does not necessarily follow that the employer had the right to prohibit employees from wearing it.

The adjudicator concluded his decision with the simple statement that the seventy nine grievors had been seeking:

The employer violated clause 19.01 of the collective agreement by prohibiting the grievors, in the spring of 2005, from wearing, during working hours and in front of clients, a button bearing the Alliance logo and reading: “You’ll miss us when we’re gone! 2006.”

Final word

Our right to publicly challenge employer decisions affecting members and the public is of key importance. Our collective agreement provides solid protection against actions the employer might undertake to remove this right, but as this decision makes clear, our right is not absolute. Crafting the right message for a button is crucial and locals are urged to contact their CEIU office for guidance before issuing buttons (or other message-bearing items) to their members.

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