Airline Employee Wins Verdict Over Anti-Abortion Speech

Leah Shepherd By Leah Shepherd August 3, 2022
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flight attendant and passangers on plane

​A Texas jury awarded more than $5 million to a former airline employee in July in a lawsuit over her anti-abortion messages. In Charlene Carter v. Transport Workers Union Local 556 and Southwest Airlines, a former flight attendant sued the airline and her union after she was fired in 2017. The jury in the U.S. District Court found the airline discriminated against her for her religious beliefs.

The plaintiff sent five private social media messages to the union president, calling her "despicable" for attending the 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C. Some of her messages contained videos of an aborted fetus and demands for the union president to be recalled. She posted similar content to her personal Facebook page.

The company fired her, saying she violated the company's policies regarding bullying, harassment and social media use. The plaintiff claimed her speech and activity was protected by the Railway Labor Act and the United States Constitution.

We've rounded up the latest news on what employers need to know. Here are SHRM Online resources and news articles from other trusted media outlets.

Resisting the Union

The plaintiff criticized union officials for using union dues to attend the rally, which was supported by Planned Parenthood. She also was upset that union members who wanted to attend had been granted adjustments to their work schedules. The jury ruled that her termination was a violation of her right to oppose her union.

(Fortune)

Religious Discrimination

The jury found that the decision to fire the plaintiff was motivated by her religious beliefs. It also found that the airline failed to accommodate the plaintiff's Christian religious beliefs.

(Bloomberg Law)

Federal Law Protects Speech

Some employee speech is protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which covers political speech when there is a connection to workplace benefits. If employees are discussing the employer's public position on abortion—or lack of a response or position—it's probably protected speech. Similarly, if employees are talking about the company's benefits or policies, or lack of benefits or policies, that is probably protected speech.

(SHRM Online)

Right to Criticize Union

Airline and railway workers fall under the Railway Labor Act, which has its own bargaining and dispute resolution procedures for workers. It protects the rights of workers to criticize their union and advocate for changing union leadership.

(Dallas Observer)

Civil Work Environment

HR professionals are responsible for creating and maintaining a civil work environment. Companies should provide guidance on how to have conversations about politics in the workplace and facilitate conversations to ensure workplaces are cordial.

(SHRM Online)

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