Disrespectful Speech May Be Protected by Labor Laws
The Borough of Carteret, NJ and Local 47 Police Benevolent Association are parties to a collective bargaining agreement. Salvatore Renda is the president of Local 47. He and several other union representatives attended the public portion of a Borough Council meeting to address ongoing union matters.
Renda’s name was reached on a public speaking sign in sheet and he began making a statement about the Attorney General guidelines concerning disciplinary hearings and internal investigations. The mayor interrupted Renda and stated that he could not dispute what Renda was saying. A heated exchange ensued and Renda told the mayor he did not want him to answer any questions. The mayor interrupted twice more, and Renda asked for additional time to speak, the mayor denied extra time, at which point Renda told the mayor to “please shut up.” In total the mayor interrupted Renda eight times and Renda responded that the mayor was “a joke.”
The City later served Renda with a preliminary notice of disciplinary action charging him with insubordination and conduct unbecoming a public employee. Local 47 responded by filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the City. The administrative agency found that Renda’s comments were protected speech and that he could not be disciplined for them. The court stated that when an employee is engaged in protected activity the employee and employer are equals and one cannot be subordinate of the other.
Renda was off duty and acting as a union representative and the substance of his commentary was union related. The comments were directed at an elected official and not someone directly in his chain of command. His comments did not indefensibly threaten workplace discipline, order, or respect, therefore the court found he did not forfeit the protection he was afforded under the law.
Borough of Carteret, 42 NJPER 66 (N.J. PERC 2015)