Many of us have had at least one – a boss that evokes dread at the start of each workday, makes each passing minute on the job more painful than the last, and who intrudes even in our free time by haunting our nightmares. This is certainly not a new phenomenon: escaping the unlimited control of the foreman was at the heart of the industrial unionism movement of the 1930s and 1940s in Canada. Demands for job security and seniority protection resonated with working people not only as a means of protecting older workers, but as a way of escaping a system of favouritism where the best jobs were doled out to those most skilled in brown-nosing. In the decades following the early victories of industrial unions, many of their gains became entrenched in Canadian labour law.
Does this mean we have the right to tell an employer or supervisor exactly what we think of him or her? Alternately, do we have the right to share these feelings with others? The rising popularity of social network sites like Facebook have added another dimension to this question: how public of a forum can we use to express our opinions of employers?
Recent decisions in Canada and the United States help shed light on the latter question, and suggest that workers in the United States have much more freedom when it comes to criticizing their employers over social network sites.
In what may be the first Facebook-related dismissal in Canada to be brought before a labour relations board, two workers in British Columbia who recently unionized their workplace were fired for making derogatory remarks about their employer on Facebook. Granted, their comments were highly contentious, and included homophobic slurs and threats. In addition, the subject of their slurs were also their ‘friends’ on Facebook, making it much easier for their managers to track their activities off the job. The British Columbia Labour Relations Board upheld their termination, citing the creation of a hostile work environment and insubordination.
In a similar case with very different results in the United States, the National Labour Relations Board recently upheld an employee’s right to criticize her supervisor on Facebook, accusing the company she worked for of illegally firing her. According to the National Labour Relations Act, workers have the right to form unions, and both unionized and non-unionized workers are protected against being punished for discussing unionization or working conditions. A Board spokesman stated that whether it be at the water cooler or on Facebook, American workers have the right to talk about working conditions, which includes the right to talk about their supervisors. The Labour Relations Board will not have the last word on this, however; the case is scheduled to be heard in an American court in January of next year. In Canada, labour law falls under provincial jurisdiction, whereas in the United States labour law is a federal domain.
These cases raise interesting questions about workers’ rights, freedom of speech, and employers’ right to discipline workers’ behaviour and activities both on and off the job, and have spawned a slew of online commentary. In some ways, these are not new problems; there is a long history of workers seeking to limit the power and control employers have wielded over their personal and professional lives. Social media outlets, however, add new questions to age-old problems.
These two labour board decisions are a first, but undoubtedly will not be the last we hear on this topic. Indeed, there is even a Facebook page devoted to people Fired by Facebook. As the lines between work and home, personal and professional life, become even more blurred under the pressure of technological innovation, competing definitions and boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour will undoubtedly continue to be contested. In the meantime, Canadian workers may want to be careful of what they say about their employers on Facebook.