WASHINGTON—Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. wrongfully dismissed a worker at its Findlay, Ohio, plant for making racist remarks during picketing, and must rehire him with back pay, an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board has ruled.
The statements of Anthony Runion on Jan. 7, 2012, “while racist and offensive, were not sufficient to remove the protection of the (National Labor Relations) Act from his protected picketing activity,” NLRB Administrative Law Judge Thomas M. Randazzo ruled June 5.
Runion, a member of the United Steelworkers union, was picketing the Findlay plant with other Cooper workers during a lockout. When replacement workers came out of the plant during a shift change, Runion and some of the other picketing workers shouted insults at the replacements.
Some of the replacement workers were African-American, according to case documents. During the shift change, Runion was heard shouting, “Hey, did you bring enough KFC for everyone?” and, “Hey, anybody smell that? I smell fried chicken and watermelon!”
Cooper fired Runion on March 1, 2012, for making those remarks. The USW filed a complaint on Runion's behalf with the NLRB on Aug. 13, 2012. On May 14, 2014, an arbitrator ruled that Cooper fired Runion for just cause.
In his June 5 decision, Randazzo reversed the arbitrator's decision.
“Although the record reveals that there were several racist statements made on the picket line by unidentified individuals after Runion made his ‘KFC' and ‘fried chicken and watermelon' statements, and after he left the picket line, the record does not establish that those individuals were provoked or inspired to make those statements by anyone,” Randazzo said.
“In addition, there is certainly no evidence to establish that Runion in any way inspired or caused those persons to make those racist statements,” he said.
Randazzo said his findings were consistent with well-establish NLRB precedent.
“The board has held that a striker's or picketer's use of even the most vile language and/or gestures, standing alone, does not forfeit the protection of the act, so long as those actions do not constitute a threat,” he said.
In a statement, Cooper said it strongly disagreed with Randazzo's opinion and would appeal it to the full NLRB.
“Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. is committed to maintaining a workplace free from harassment and discrimination,” the tire maker said. “In keeping with this commitment, which is supported by company policy, we do not tolerate racist remarks made by employees.”
The NLRB said it will accept exceptions to Randazzo's decision until July 6.