Doling out a refreshing victory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sided with Jimmy John’s in a protected, concerted activity case brought under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). On July 3, the full en banc court reversed an earlier decision of a three-member panel of the court that had affirmed a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruling for the employees. Unless appealed to the Supreme Court, this decision brings to an end a torturous legal saga lasting over six years.
This case was set in motion in October 2010 when an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-affiliated union lost a union election to represent Jimmy John’s employees at ten franchised stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, owned and operated by MikLin Enterprises. After the unsuccessful election, several union supporters continued to pressure the franchisee’s management to adopt workplace policy changes, including the adoption of paid sick leave. The disgruntled sandwich-makers claimed that current attendance policies forced them to work while sick.
The dispute escalated when six of these employees placed posters in and around the restaurants, calling attention to their claims. The posters featured two identical side-by-side pictures of a Jimmy John’s sandwich. One was labeled as being made by a “sick” employee and the other by a “healthy” employee. The caption below the picture read “Can’t tell the difference?” and was accompanied by a message criticizing the employer’s attendance policies. The employer terminated the six employees responsible for these posters.
The employees challenged their terminations claiming that the employer’s actions were in retaliation for concerted protected activity under the NLRA. Both the NLRB and the three-member panel of the Eighth Circuit agreed. However, the full panel of the Eighth Circuit ruled that the terminations were lawful. Specifically, it found that the claims about food safety were false and misleading and therefore, sufficiently “disloyal” to place the actions of the six employees outside of the protections of the NLRA.
The decision is heartening for employers, as many recent NLRB decisions have been overly protective of worker actions that were calculated to harm a company’s reputation.