The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that Starbucks Corp. did not violate federal labor law by adopting a dress code which limits the number of pro-union buttons its employees can wear on their uniforms. NLRB v. Starbucks Corp., Nos. 10-3511-ag, 10-3783-ag(XAP) (2d Cir., decided May 10, 2012).  

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had ruled that multiple prounion buttons, at one-inch in diameter, “did not seriously harm Starbucks’s legitimate interest in employee image because ‘the Company not only countenanced but encouraged employees to wear multiple buttons as part of that image.’ These other buttons, the Board found, were not immediately recognizable by customers as company-sponsored, and the pro-union pins at issue were ‘no more conspicuous than the panoply of other buttons employees displayed.’”  

Reversing this part of NLRB’s determination, the appeals court said that it had gone too far. “Starbucks is clearly entitled to oblige its employees to wear buttons promoting its products, and the information contained on those buttons is just as much a part of Starbucks’s public image as any other aspect of its dress code,” said the court. “But the company is also entitled to avoid the distraction from its messages that a number of union buttons would risk.” The record apparently showed that one employee tried to display eight union pins “on her pants, shirts, hat, and apron. Wearing such a large number of union buttons would risk serious dilution of the information contained on Starbucks’s buttons, and the company has a ‘legitimate, recognized managerial interest[]’ in preventing its employees from doing so.”