Shorts Scare Could Mark New Front in Federal Labor-Management Conflict

Union leaders cancelled a passive protest scheduled for Monday but voted to take legal action after the Social Security Administration threatened to discipline employees.

A union leader at the Social Security Administration last week thought he had come up with a clever way for employees to show solidarity as his team began a week of contract talks with agency leadership on Monday: wear shorts, to signify how management is “short changing” workers and customers.

Ralph Dejuliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, a collection of local unions representing SSA employees, said he thought it would be a fun—and unobtrusive—way for workers to express support as parties negotiate a new union contract.

“We figured it would be a good way for employees to show their support, but in a way that people didn’t have to lose time from work or get permits to demonstrate in front of their buildings,” Dejuliis said. “We just wanted to show management all over the country that we’re speaking for employees and have each other’s backs.”

Little did he know that the idea would trigger a grave threat from the agency. Even though there is no dress code in place at the Social Security Administration, anyone who wore shorts on Monday would be subject to disciplinary action and sent home to change, according to an email obtained by Government Executive.

“The call for employees to wear shorts in the workplace on September 23 may lead to counseling and/or discipline of employees,” wrote James Julian, associate commissioner for labor-management and employee relations in an email to Dejuliis. “Although the agency has not imposed a specific dress code for employees, there are written expectations that employees observe standards of dress and appearance that are acceptable in similar work in the community and suitable to the work environment.”

By the agency’s logic, the union thus would be responsible for triggering a work stoppage, an accusation that can carry dire consequences. Although the agency did not specify precisely how it would react to employees wearing shorts, participating in a work stoppage can be a fireable offense, and if a union is found to have organized a work stoppage, it can lead to decertification.

“If employees are forced to leave the workplace for a period of time to obtain appropriate workplace attire, these absences will hinder the agency’s ability to serve the public,” Julian wrote. “Therefore, AFGE’s request that employees wear shorts may be tantamount to promoting a work stoppage or a work slowdown. As you are certainly aware, a union’s call to participate in a work stoppage or a union’s failure to take action to prevent such is a violation of . . . the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute.”

The Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Dejuliis said that although the union maintains that wearing shorts as part of a passive demonstration is protected speech under the First Amendment, he told employees not to go forward with the planned protest. He also noted that employees already do wear shorts at the agency, particularly in offices in warmer states.

“You know, we can’t tell employees to be disciplined, so we said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Dejuliis said. “I did get a pop-up message from one local officer in upstate New York who was informed by his manager that all area directors had a call with managers where they said that anyone who wears shorts, you will counsel them.”

Peter Harris, vice president of AFGE Council 220, said the union is considering legal action as a result of the dust-up. In addition to believing the agency’s threats are a First Amendment violation, Harris said he worries it could have a chilling effect on employee demonstrations going forward.

“We’re happy to file a lawsuit, and I’ve already contacted a First Amendment attorney,” Harris said. “Obviously they haven’t reneged on their position [and allowed shorts in the workplace], but even if they were to do so, at this point the damage has been done.”

Unions have long invoked fashion as a way to show solidarity without requesting leave for major demonstrations, and until now, such actions have not been controversial. A search of the hashtag #RedForFeds on Twitter shows dozens of photos each Wednesday of employees across the federal government donning red attire in support of various unions.