A bunch of this wasn't quite right with the law. (Photo provided by CWA) A bunch of this wasn't quite right with the law. (Photo provided by CWA)

Carolina Figueroa works at a T-Mobile call center in Albuquerque, N.M., in the bilingual retention section, trying to talk Spanish-speaking customers out of canceling their accounts. She likes her job, and the pay is decent — $18.50 an hour after eight years working there, plus health coverage, which covers the bills for her and her young daughter.

There’s only one problem: the employee handbook, which covers some 40,000 employees across the country. As long as she’s worked there, workers at the call center have been discouraged from discussing wages and working conditions, through provisions that bar things like disclosure of employee information, making disparaging statements about the company and pursuing wage complaints through anyone other than human resources. Employees can be disciplined or fired for violating any of the rules.

“Right now we’re silent — not understanding that we could if we were altogether, we could make things different,” said Figueroa, 28, back in December. “What if someone worked longer and is paid less than me? We’re not allowed to talk about that.”

That’s particularly problematic for organizing a union, which the Communications Workers of America have been trying to do for several years now at T-Mobile’s call centers and retail stores. Over and over again, the union has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board about workers being fired or disciplined for actions related to the union drive. Usually, they’ve settled with no admission of guilt, and actual provisions in the handbook never went before a judge.

[Read: T-Mobile's John Legere made one of the worst and most memorable CEO apologies of the year]

Last year, however, the NLRB’s general counsel consolidated complaints from four cities into one, putting 12 provisions of the handbook on trial. And on Wednesday, an administrative law judge issued her decision: In 10 of those provisions, T-Mobile’s employee handbook violates federal protections on workers’ right to organize.

"A theme throughout the policies in place here, from this very sophisticated company, is that they have not wanted them talking about working conditions, or pay, or about discipline,” said Jody Calemine, general counsel of CWA. "If you can’t talk to your co-workers about work, there’s no way you can organize to improve things about work.”

Although the National Labor Relations Act bans employers from preventing discussion of wages and working conditions, the provision is vague, and the practice is actually fairly common. Last year, in a nationwide survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, half of adults reported that discussions about pay were either prohibited or discouraged at their workplace. That’s why some officials have pursued additional laws specifically protecting the right. Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, the District of Columbia and California have passed such measures, and earlier this year, President Obama signed an executive order on wage transparency for federal contractors.

In addition to discouraging discussion of working conditions, the T-Mobile handbook also prohibited talking to the media, and contained broad and vague restrictions on using company information and resources to harm morale. In her decision, Judge Christine Dibble ordered T-Mobile to rescind the illegal policies and post notices in all its workplaces about the changes.

In response to the ruling, T-Mobile downplayed its impact. "This is simply a ruling about a technical issue in the law that relates to policies that are common to companies across the country,” it said in a statement. "There are no allegations that any employee has been impacted by these policies."

Technically, that’s true -- the case was about the policies themselves, not their impact on workers. But CWA says that its many complaints against actions by managers stemmed from the fact that these policies were in place. And for employers, it can sometimes be difficult to understand whether policies intended to protect confidential information also might inadvertently chill worker voice -- so on the same day as Dibble released her decision, the NLRB's General Counsel issued new guidance on what work rules are kosher and which aren't.

Nothing was too different on Thursday when Figueroa walked into work — most people don’t know about the ruling yet. But she says it will make it easier for her and her co-workers to talk amongst themselves about things they want to improve.

“I think if we do get a union, we would negotiate better schedules, be able to take care of our families, be around for our loved ones,” she says. “Just having someone there for you so we could bring up issues with management. Just to have the free speech we don’t have right now.”

This post has been updated to include information about the NLRB's new guidance on work rules. 

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