The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), known for defending free speech rights, is facing allegations from the US labor board that it unlawfully terminated an employee to prevent other staff members from speaking out about poor working conditions. The complaint, issued by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director in March, states that the fired employee had been consistently raising concerns about wages and working conditions from 2020 to May 2022. The ACLU has denied these allegations and expressed confidence in its case, emphasizing its support for employees’ right to free speech. The organization argues that the case should be resolved internally through its arbitration process.
In response to the allegations, the ACLU contested the authority of NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo to issue the complaints due to the way her predecessor, appointed by former President Donald Trump, was fired by President Joe Biden. However, the organization has since withdrawn this argument, deeming it a “technical, procedural issue.” Over the past few years, many ACLU employees have formed unions, reflecting a broader trend of nonprofit and political advocacy staff engaging in organizing efforts. The terminated staffer was represented by the union ACLU Staff United, which the organization agreed to recognize and negotiate with in 2021 after employees joined the union.
Both federal law and the NLRB protect workers’ rights to voice concerns and protest against working conditions, regardless of union membership. The NLRB regional directors issue complaints that are reviewed by administrative law judges, and their decisions can be appealed to labor board members in Washington, DC, and even federal appeals court if necessary. While the NLRB can order companies to change unlawful policies and reinstate terminated activists, it lacks the authority to impose punitive damages or hold executives personally accountable for violations of labor laws.