A Tale of Two Scrooges (a free speech fable)
It was a very cold mid-winter day in London, England. A group of clerks asked for a little more fuel for the fire, to warm the office and thaw their hands; Scrooge said
no! and threatened to terminate them. The frightened clerks sat back down and tried to warm their fingers over the candle flame. So it went in Dickens'
On another cold mid-winter day, this time in Baltimore, Maryland, another group of workers faced another Scrooge, but the result was very different. The plant was drafty, uninsulated, frigid; the furnaces were falling apart. But the boss was too cheap to fix it. After their complaints had gone unheard, the workers decided it was finally time to stand up for themselves. Seven of the eight day-shift workers walked out of work one morning, saying
I am going home, it is too d-mned cold to work. They
had all got together and thought it would be a good idea to go home; maybe we could get some heat brought into the plant that way. The boss tried to terminate them.
The Supreme Court weighs in: workers have the right to speak up
The Supreme Court said the workers have the right to speak up for themselves---and even to walk off the job---and it is illegal to try to terminate them for it. The courageous workers all got to keep their jobs, and their boss was ultimately forced to reckon with them collectively, on their own terms.
The right to stand up and speak out
The statute books say that employees have the right to engage in
concerted activities for . . . mutual aid or protection (29 U.S.C. 157) - in other words, free speech about working conditions and a democratic voice in the workplace.
This area of law is complex, however, and there are a number of important limits on speech protection which cannot be easily summarized. For this reason, it is important to consider the circumstances of the particular case before employees decide to take action.
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