Sacramento County, California has an Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Division, known as ARFF. Firefighters and captains within ARFF are represented by Local 522 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Local 522 offered discounted items of clothing to its members, including a t-shirt, cap, sweatshirt, sweatpants, and shorts. These items of clothing are typically worn at the fire station, mainly outside of public view.
In 2011, a battalion chief issued a memorandum forbidding the wearing of a Local 522 hat while on duty. Later, the chief expanded the prohibition to include the t-shirt and sweatshirt. Local 522 filed an unfair labor practice charge, alleging that its members had the right to wear the logo on Class B apparel.
California’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) held that “absent special circumstances, the firefighters have a statutorily protected right to wear Class B uniform apparel bearing the Local 522 logo while on duty. Through this form of expression, they are able to demonstrate, in a visible and positive manner, their union solidarity and pride.”
The Board found it appropriate to take guidance from cases interpreting various California labor relations statutes as well as the National Labor Relations Act. The Board noted that the United States Supreme Court has “cited with approval the NLRB’s conclusion that, absent special circumstances, the right of employees to wear union insignia at work has long been recognized as a reasonable and legitimate form of union activity, and an employer’s curtailment of that right is clearly violative of the Act.”
PERB outlined what sorts of special circumstances might permit a ban on union buttons or insignia. For example, a ban might be justified if a union pin or button “could jeopardize employee safety, exacerbate employee dissension, cause distraction from work demanding great concentration, or disrupt the uniformity, discipline, or appearance of neutrality among para-military law enforcement employees. However, the exposure of customers to union buttons, standing alone, does not constitute special circumstances.”
The Board found that the County made no attempt to demonstrate special circumstances. The Board observed that “firefighters from neighboring municipal fire departments wear t-shirts bearing the Local 522 logo, and respond to emergencies at the Airport wearing the Class B uniform t-shirt without the uniform shirt. By their example, we discern no evidence that would support an argument by the County that special circumstances exist to deprive ARFF bargaining unit employees the right to wear uniform apparel bearing the union logo while on duty.
“After Local 522 became the exclusive representative of the ARFF firefighters, the Class B uniform t-shirt, cap and sweatshirt bearing the Local 522 logo started to be worn in public and at the fire station. This practice caused no impact other than the wearer of the apparel occasionally being told to take it off. Also, every October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. In support thereof, the firefighters in the Metro and City Fire Departments wear pink uniform t-shirts bearing the Local 522 logo. The ARFF firefighters have been allowed to do the same for the last three years. It is presumed from the County’s approval of such practice that the wearing of the t-shirt bearing the Local 522 logo during the month of October has caused no problems notwithstanding its pink color or union insignia. It is also presumed from the County’s approval of the Local 522 logo on sweatpants and shorts that such practice similarly has posed no problems.
“Accordingly, the ‘No Union Logo’ policy is, on its face, unlawful. Such a policy interferes with firefighters in the exercise of their right to participate in the activities of an employee organization of their own choosing for the purpose of representation on all matters of employer-employee relations.”
County of Sacramento, PERB Decision No. 2393 (Cal. PERB 2014).