The National Labor Relations Board called it "The Hat Removal Incident." Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., which makes motorcycles in Marysville, Ohio, said it was a regrettable "misunderstanding." The United Auto Workers union, which wants to organize Honda's only U.S. plant, called it a victory--of sorts.

It all started May 16 when Matthew Holtzapel, a boiler operator and UAW organizer at the Honda plant, wore his blue union hat to work with his white Honda uniform. The company has rules about such things, and put them in an employe handbook that says, in part: "We believe everyone dressed in white will project a favorable image of cleanliness to anyone visiting our plant."

Anyway, Honda foreman Eugene Fryman told Holtzapel to remove his hat in the plant. Holtzapel, who carries around a book of regulations on union organizing, said the National Labor Relations Act allows him to wear the hat. Fryman took the matter to higher-ups who told Holtzapel to wear a Honda hat or no hat at all.

The UAW got angry about that and filed an unfair-labor-practices charge against Honda, accusing the company of "selectively . . . prohibiting an employe from wearing a hat with a union emblem during working and nonworking time lunch , thereby interfering with, restraining and coercing its employes in the exercise of their rights . . ."

Honda officials said they did no such thing. But Thomas D. Johnston, an NLRB administrative law judge who heard the case in Marysville on July 15, has decided differently.

The company could not prove its contention that a UAW or other nonuniform hat interfered with production any more than a Honda hat, Johnston said. "By maintaining a rule concerning its wearing of uniforms which would prohibit its employes from wearing union buttons and insignia," the company "interfered with, restrained and coerced its employes in the exercise of their rights" under federal labor law, Johnston said.

"We regret that the case involving our traditional uniform policies has caused so much trouble," Honda officials said in a corporate statement. However, the officials noted that Jonston's decision "is subject to be reviewed" by the full five-member NLRB.