Tesla didn't squelch United Auto Workers message when it cracked down on T-shirts, court says

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Automaker Tesla did not infringe on its workers’ rights to unionize when it ordered employees at a California assembly plant to stop wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the United Auto Workers logo, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a 3-2 decision issued last year by the National Labor Relations Board, which had said Tesla couldn’t prohibit union attire. The court opinion noted that Tesla allowed workers to affix “any number or size” of pro-union stickers to company-issued clothing.

“We may have concluded differently had Tesla prohibited union insignia," read the opinion issued Tuesday by a unanimous panel of three 5th Circuit judges.

The Associated Press sent emails requesting comment to Tesla and the UAW.

According to the court record, Tesla issued special black clothing with the company name and logo, dubbed “Team Wear,” to employees who worked on autos that had been recently painted. The clothing is issued to help prevent workers from inadvertently causing damage to paint that hasn't completely cured.

Some employees began wearing UAW shirts as an alternative in 2017, a practice the company cracked down on after several months, according to the opinion.

The NLRB ruled in August 2022 that the practice was an “overly broad” uniform policy and ordered it stopped.

But the appeals panel said the company policy didn't keep the union from getting its message across to employees.

“The Team Wear policy — or any hypothetical company’s uniform policy — advances a legitimate interest of the employer and neither discriminates against union communication nor affects nonworking time,” Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the panel.

The opinion comes as the 5th Circuit prepares for arguments in another union-related matter involving Tesla, NLRB and the assembly plant in Fremont, California.

A 5th Circuit panel ruled in March that Tesla CEO Elon Musk unlawfully threatened to take away employees’ stock options in a 2018 post on what was then Twitter amid an organizing effort by the UAW. The post was made before Musk bought the platform and renamed it X.

The panel upheld an NLRB order to delete the tweet. But that order was vacated after the full 5th Circuit, currently with 16 full-time judges, voted to hear the matter. A hearing in that case is pending.

The panel that issued this week's ruling included Smith, nominated to the appeals court by the late President Ronald Reagan; Leslie Southwick, nominated by former President George W. Bush; and Stephen Higginson, nominated by former President Barack Obama.