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Button wearers file suit vs. Menino

Workers protest orders not to display anti-Fenway slogans

By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff, 8/17/2000

Globe correspondent Amber Bollman contributed to this report.

wo City Hall employees who were reprimanded and threatened with dismissal for wearing anti-Fenway Park buttons to work slapped Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the city with a federal civil rights suit yesterday.

The offending buttons, printed by Service Employees International Union Local 285, which represents city clerical and technical workers, carry a variety of messages, including: "Millions for Fenway While City Workers Eat Hot Dogs," and "No Contract, No Fenway."

Carole Brennan, a spokeswoman for Menino, said that due to the pending lawsuit, she could not comment on why the employees were disciplined.

However, she said the city "does not have a no-button policy, and the city recognizes people's right to wear buttons that make statements about areas of public concern."

"This stems from a workplace difference of opinion that we feel can be dealt with by normal grievance procedure," said Brennan.

The buttons were circulated this month to protest the fact that union members have been without a contract since June 1999, while the mayor has supported a plan for the city to contribute $140 million toward a new Fenway Park.

"The city is infringing on its workers' right to speak out on an important issue: the city's proposed spending of millions of dollars on a private baseball stadium while city workers don't have a contract, are making substandard wages, and have inadequate benefits," said lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, who filed the suit on behalf of Local 285 and its members, including the two who were disciplined.

On Aug. 4, Lucia Thomas and John Shea, who work in the Human Resources Department at City Hall, received letters from their supervisors warning them that they were guilty of "insubordination" for refusing to remove the buttons when ordered to do so by their bosses, according to documents filed in court.

"This letter is a written warning concerning your insubordination and disobedience of a direct order regarding violation of our work rules and regulations," the memorandum to Shea read.

"You should understand that a continuation of this behavior will result in further disciplinary action up to and including discharge."

The lawsuit says other union members who work at City Hall were afraid to wear the buttons, for fear they too would be disciplined.

Brennan said both Thomas and Shea have filed grievances with the city.

Liss-Riordan urged US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, who drew the case, to hold an emergency hearing on her request to order the city to allow its workers to wear the buttons. She is also asking Wolf to order the city to remove the disciplinary letters from the personnel files of Thomas and Shea.

The suit accuses city supervisors of prohibiting the union buttons because they didn't like their message. In the past, city workers have been allowed to wear buttons promoting fund-raisers to fight AIDS and breast cancer.

As the suit was filed yesterday, workers from Local 285 picketed outside City Hall, calling for a new contract with higher wages and better health benefits.

One protester, David Reno, a Local 285 member who works for the Police Department, said the buttons have been worn at police headquarters without objection.

"No one says anything at police headquarters because they know better," Reno said. "It's a part of our freedom of speech and something we have the right to do."

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 8/17/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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