That amounts to “illegal surveillance” of union activities, according to the labor organization’s complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
In the past six months, Weather Service officials “engaged in the surveillance of internal union communications about and discussions of protected activities” on the labor organization’s “ ‘secret’ (that is, ‘members only’) Facebook page,” according to the complaint.
Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokeswoman, said the agency does “not conduct surveillance on our employees’ private social media accounts, including NWSEO’s members-only Facebook page.”
Unlike other cases of surreptitious surveillance, managers did not try to keep their spying secret, the union’s complaint alleges. It says management officials made critical comments about some of the Facebook postings to stifle the commentary.
“The NWS has more recently made sure that the union and its members are aware of its surveillance activities, and has made disparaging remarks to employees about what has been said on the Facebook page, in order to chill the vigorous discussion that takes place on this Facebook page,” the complaint said.
In one case, NWSEO President Daniel Sobien posted an item critical of management on June 27. On July 6, David Murray, NWS director of management and organization, “sent Mr. Sobien an intimidating email complaining about the content of this posting,” the complaint says. “Mr. Murray wrote that NWS management officials ‘were once again, disappointed in the tone, tenor and misrepresentations you made.’ ”
Buchanan did not explain how managers could make comments about the Facebook postings if they had not looked at the page. “While it’s under review with Counsel, I can’t comment on specific allegations in the complaint except to confirm that we do not conduct social media surveillance on our employees,” she said by email.
The page is used to share information and sometimes “to vent on certain policies,” Sobien said in an interview. He described the page as a “24/7 virtual union meeting.” The posts include employee comments critical of managers that union members “absolutely would not” want managers to see, he added.
Sobien and Richard J. Hirn, the union’s general counsel, said they did not know how managers obtained access to the Facebook page. Ordinarily, union members must be cleared by one of the page administrators.
Hirn said he placed information on the page one evening and the next morning an agency lawyer “complained about what I had written on the Facebook page the night before.”
“It was grossly unethical for the Department of Commerce (the NWS parent agency) attorney to even read what I wrote because it was a confidential communication to my clients,” Hirn said by telephone. “I’m afraid to do so now. It’s a grotesque violation of ethics.”