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Starbucks Can Limit Employees' Pieces of Flair

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 11, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The lessons from Office Space occasionally transcend the late-90s cinematic zeitgeist and find their way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

How, you ask? Through the only medium more prevalent than the very air that we breathe: Starbucks Coffee.

In Office Space, Jennifer Aniston's character, Joanna, must show up to her waitressing gig at Chotchkie's wearing at least 15 pieces of "flair" on her uniform. Joanna becomes frustrated when her boss tells her that she should be more like her co-worker, who sports a staggering 37 pieces of flair.

Starbucks employees encountered the opposite problem: the coffee overlords at the omnipresent chain limit the pieces of pro-union flair that employees can wear on their uniforms, prompting a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dispute.

The issue in the case is whether Starbucks can limit the number of pro-union buttons that employees could wear at any one time. The company's policy had limited it to one button less than one-inch in diameter, but an NLRB ruling said employees were not limited in the amount of union flair they chose to pin to their uniforms, reports The Consumerist.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the NLRB on Thursday, finding that the NLRB went "too far in invalidating Starbucks's one button limitation." The appellate court reasoned, "Starbucks is clearly entitled to oblige its employees to wear buttons promoting its products, and the information contained on those buttons is just as much a part of Starbucks's public image as any other aspect of its dress code. But the company is also entitled to avoid the distraction from its messages that a number of union buttons would risk."

Are pro-union buttons really that distracting? They can be. The record showed that that one employee attempted to display eight union pins on her pants, shirts, hat, and apron. (Clearly, she confused Starbucks with Chotchkie's. It happens.)

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers may not discourage unionization by discriminating in hiring or tenure decisions. While companies should tread carefully when taking actions that could be perceived as discouraging unionization, they can restrict union flair on company uniforms.

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