The federal laws protecting employees’ rights have been weakened with the waning influence of many unions and other employee organizations. The balance now shifts further towards employers with a far-reaching National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that gives employers more leeway in censuring certain workplace behaviors.

Recent NLRB ruling involved a Black autoworker

The NLRB ruled that it was okay for GM to punish a Black employee at their auto plant in Kansas City who spoke up about discriminatory behavior. The employee was an electrician and union representative who had filed multiple complaints over the years. The incident that prompted the recent ruling involved a supervisor reprimanding the worker for speaking too loudly. The worker felt he was being unfairly targeted and responded by calling his manager “master” in a fake Southern accent.

“The way they were talking to me was racist,” the worker told Bloomberg News. “They always made me out like I was threatening and intimidating them in meetings because I’m Black, and because of my size.”

Two sides of the same coin?

Management claimed that the worker was hostile and used derogatory language when speaking about workplace conditions. Critics of the ruling fear that it might embolden businesses to discipline workers for what the business deems to be offensive language or inappropriate behavior, a decision which can often be subject to opinion. Some see this as a way to quiet free speech and labor activism in the workplace.

According to the NLRB’s thinking, however, the ruling isn’t intended to have that effect. They see it as a positive shift to better protect workers from abusive behavior, obscenities, sexual harassment and racism.

These differing viewpoints represent the contrasting opinions of labor law and civil rights law. The former enables the worker to speak up about perceived wrongs, while the latter focuses on reducing the tolerance of hostile actions in the workplace.

A difficult path to navigate

This recent ruling offers some new clarity on these issues. In light of the ongoing pandemic and civil unrest in 2020, however, these matters are far from settled. The circumstances of each workplace incident are unique, so be sure to contact a knowledgeable employment law attorney if you need help with a case.