business news in context, analysis with attitude

Fox News reports that "U.S. labor board prosecutors have alleged that Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market illegally banned employees from wearing 'Black Lives Matter' masks and punished workers who did … The grocery store chain maintained appearance rules at U.S. locations to prohibit staff from displaying Black Lives Matter messages on their apparel, the National Labor Relations Board’s San Francisco regional director wrote in a complaint issued Friday on behalf of the agency’s general counsel."

The story goes on:

"In Friday’s complaint, the agency's lawyers said that Whole Foods, by banning Black Lives Matter messages, was restricting employees from exercising their legal rights to participate 'in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection.'

"'Issues of racial harassment and discrimination are central to employees’ working conditions, and the National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to advocate for change,' Jill Coffman, the NLRB regional director in San Francisco, said in a statement. 'Through this complaint, we seek to enforce the act and protect workers’ rights to speak up about these important issues'."

In a statement, Whole Foods responded:  "Our dress code policy is designed to ensure we are giving Team Members a workplace and customers a shopping experience focused entirely on excellent service and high-quality food.  We do not believe we should compromise that experience by introducing any messages on uniforms, regardless of the content, that shift the focus away from our mission."

KC's View:

I'm not sure about the legislative and regulatory constraints, but I think that a retailer that wants a store environment to remain assiduously non-political - or non-partisan - ought to have the ability to say so.  It ought to apply to everyone - if you ban BLM t-shirts, then you also have to ban MAGA paraphernalia.  You ought to be able to say, "Look, I respect your right to free speech, and urge you to protest, vote, and exercise your political conscience in as many legal and hopefully civil ways as you wish.  But, we're going to be consistent in our neutrality, and want to bring down the temperature in our stores, not raise it."

There are lot of good reasons for this.  A political message, one way or the other, could alienate a sizable percentage of customers.  And, conflicting political opinions emblazoned on clothing could create active conflicts among employees and between employees and customers - these days, this isn't just a theoretical concern.

This gets a little more complicated, of course, because retailers, like other businesses, are being drawn into political positions and debates because everything in this country is so freakin' political.  (Even not wearing masks or not being vaccinated, even when such actions would help prevent the spread of a pandemic, are posited as political acts.). And so the ice is thin, and retailers need to be careful where they step.

But - you'll forgive me for switching metaphors - if a retailer wants to create an oasis from the madness, then that ought to be acceptable.