Gailen David has worked two decades plus as a flight attendant for American Airlines. It’s not surprising that he, like most employees, has some funny things to say about his employer.

Unlike most workers, however, he decided to share those humorous tidbits on YouTube via a series of parody videos about the airline’s business practices and the way cutbacks have impacted employees. Unfortunately, his employer isn’t laughing.

David was fired this week, but the big question is, was American Airlines legally right in doing so. It’s a common belief that your boss can fire you for whatever the heck you do in social media, but in reality that’s not the case.

Just because you trash your employer on Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube, doesn’t necessarily mean you can legally be demoted or fired. If you’re discussing work conditions or issues that impact employees, there’s a chance you may be protected under the nation’s collective bargaining laws. (I wrote about this for a while back.)

I emailed David last night to ask him about this and he said, “My videos covered issues dealing with working conditions, uniforms, layoffs, lack of severance for furloughs and the overall disdain for labor that management displays towards front line employees through their policies and public statements.”

American Airlines is claiming he broke company rules. An story yesterday reported:

American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks, in a statement released Wednesday explaining David’s firing, didn’t mention the videos but claimed David published the private details of American Airlines passengers and promoted American Airlines competitors on his website. “Mr. David was counseled last year about the serious nature of both passenger privacy and conflict-of-interest violations. He has repeatedly failed to adhere to our policies,” Hicks said. “We take our passengers’ privacy seriously and will not allow employees to violate that trust.”

I went through a bunch of David’s videos and couldn’t make out if indeed he was invading the privacy of passengers. Generally, they seemed pretty harmless, but who knows what American was referring to exactly.

I emailed the agency that oversees collective bargaining laws in this country, the National Labor Relations Board, to ask about his case.

“This is very interesting,” said Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman for the agency. “Of course, every case is fact-specific so I couldn’t say whether this would fall under protected activity, but he’s certainly welcome to contact the NLRB. We have a resident office in Miami (in the federal building, 305-536-5391), and the main Florida office is in Tampa - (813) 228-2641.”

I’m passing along the info to David, who’s based in Florida and has already filed a grievance with his union.

It’s unclear how this will play out, but one labor lawyer who weighed in about the case after I asked, wasn’t too encouraging for David.

John Mahoney, an attorney with Tully Rinckey’s Labor & Employment Law Practice, said:

“My opinion is that American Airlines had a legal right to discipline Mr. David, one of the company’s flight attendants, for posting videos on YouTube that mocked his supervisors and criticized the airline’s financial difficulties, especially if he also published the private details of the airline’s passengers and promoted its competitors on his personal website.

“Employers of even unionized employees may discipline them for just cause.

“The NLRB recently advised that employee’s communications on social media may constitute legally protected concerted union activity, if those communications are directed to coworkers and deal with terms or conditions of their employment.

“However, communications that improperly and personally disparage supervisors, reveal legally protected business secrets or customer information, or promote competitors constitutes actionable misconduct and good cause for discipline.

“The real issue in Mr. David’s case is whether his misconduct merits his termination given his 24 years of service with American. If he proceeds with a union grievance, an arbitrator will weigh the mitigating circumstances to determine whether that penalty was reasonable.”

What do you all think? I’ll keep you posted on what happens in the unfriendly skies.

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