By Mike Elk
In October 2012, In These Times revealed that the Koch brothers had instructed 45,000 employees of Georgia-Pacific, a paper company owned by Koch Industries, to vote for Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election. But even as the Kochs took advantage of expanded free speech rights for corporations under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, Georgia-Pacific was busy circulating a strict policy that prohibited workers from speaking poorly of the company or its officers on social media. Thanks to a new decree by the National Labor Relations Board, however, employees can now feel free to post about their jobs to Facebook or Instagram without fear of retribution.
Many employees took this to mean that they could not post anything criticizing the company on social media.
Greg Pallesen, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Papers Workers (AWPPW), which represents workers at Georgia-Pacific paper plants in the Pacific Northwest, says that the policy was emblematic of the Koch brothers’ hypocrisy when it comes to workers’ rights.
“It all ties back into the last round of politics,” he says. “On one hand [the Kochs] say they believe and want free speech [for themselves], but on the other hand, they don’t allow their employees to have free speech.”
Though labor law does not unequivocally protect workers’ free speech on the job, it does give employees the right to advocate on behalf of their co-workers. With this in mind, in July 2012, AWPPW filed charges with the NLRB arguing that Georgia-Pacific’s overly broad social media policy interfered with employees’ ability to speak out about working conditions there. AWPPW also alleged that the company should have included the policy, as well as parts of the Employee Code of Conduct, in the union’s contract negotiations as a mandatory subject of bargaining.
In December 2013, after a year and a half of investigation, the NLRB reached a settlement with Georgia-Pacific requiring the company to rescind the policy and to post a statement in all its facilities assuring workers of their rights under federal labor law. The statement will read, “WE WILL repeal our social media policy and WE WILL NOT issue policies that interfere with your right to share information relating to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, including on social media.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Georgia-Pacific must also now allow employees to use the company email system to share information about working conditions. In addition, the corporation revoked the portions of its Code of Conduct that forbade employees from “sharing personal employee or compensation information with others”—a ban expressly prohibited by federal labor law.
Greg Guest, spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific, said in a statement, “Georgia-Pacific worked cooperatively with the National Labor Relations Board to better understand its position on employees’ rights, including employee rights in the social media space, and we are pleased that we were able to find a compromise that worked for both parties.”
Despite Guest’s talk of compromise, however, Pallesen feels the settlement is a clear victory for AWPPW and Georgia-Pacific’s workers.
“It was a good win for us. It slows the company down on just implementing things, which they tend to do. This forces them to come to us to negotiate policy,” says Pallesen. “Instead of the employer having 100 percent of the control of speech in the workplace, this gives employees some protection when it comes to ‘protected and concerted efforts’ [to organize at work].”
Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times, where this post originally appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.