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Anti-fraternization policy is ruled unlawful

February 03, 2007|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — Employers may stop their workers from fraternizing if it's for fun but not if it's to discuss working conditions, a U.S. appeals court ruled Friday.

A three-judge panel found that an anti-fraternization policy of the security-services firm Guardsmark intruded into federal labor law that gives workers the right to organize and to "engage in other concerted activities."

At issue was the meaning of "fraternize" -- which can refer to mingling fraternally or romantically -- and which definition fit in the context of the company's rule that employees must not "fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees."

After looking up "fraternize" in at least half a dozen dictionaries, the judges declared that "every one of these dictionaries lists fraternal association as the primary definition; social and intimate associations are secondary."

As a result, the court overruled the National Labor Relations Board, the U.S. agency charged with interpreting labor law. The NLRB upheld Guardsmark's policy in June 2005, saying workers would reasonably read it as applying to "personal entanglements" and not to their legal rights.

Craig Becker, an attorney with the Service Employees International Union whose Oakland local brought the action on behalf of its 350 to 400 San Francisco Bay Area members at Guardsmark, hailed the ruling.

Ed Young, an attorney for New York-based Guardsmark, said the company was reviewing its options.

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