Want to insult your company's CEO? Better join a union

Is there a way to cuss out your boss and keep your job? As it turns out, yes, although it may take a union card -- and a pen.

That's the upshot of a federal labor ruling this week involving two West Virginia coal miners, Richard Harrison and Jesse Stolzenfels, who registered their unhappiness at their employer, Murray American Energy, in an unusual way: by scribbling profanities directed at CEO Robert Murray on bonus checks the two had received and returned in protest.

The dispute stemmed from a bonus plan Murray American implemented in 2014 aimed at boosting productivity in its Marion County mine. Employees at the facility, who are represented by the United Mine Workers, voted down the plan on grounds it could endanger workers.

Harrison, who had worked at the mine for roughly a decade and who had served on the Marion mine's safety committee, testified that he feared "employees would place their focus on production at the expense of safety practices," according to a ruling released Tuesday by a judge with the National Labor Relations Board. Stolzenfels opposed the plan for similar reasons.

Murray American adopted the plan anyway, which the union said violated the workers' collective bargaining agreement.

After Harrison received his first bonus check, for $11.58, he voided it and wrote "kiss my a-- Bob," before returning it to the company's payroll department. He also posted a photo of the defaced check on the union's private Facebook page, where other miners also posted pictures of their voided checks. Stolzenfels, a seven-year employee of the company, returned his bonus, for $3.22, but not before writing "eat s---- Bob" on the payment.

Shortly thereafter, the two were fired. The union then filed a grievance with the NLRB, a government agency that monitors labor practices.

In finding that Harrison and Stolzenfels had been wrongly discharged, the agency judge presiding over the case wrote that their remarks on the checks, "while profane and offensive, were nevertheless expressions of protest and outrage over what those employees viewed as implementation of a plan that would adversely affect their safety conditions and which constituted what the employees believed was a surprising violation of the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement."

Translation: The miners' salty language was protected under labor law, the judge concluded, noting that they hadn't threatened violence and posed no danger to Murray American managers. Workers and managers also testified that profanity was common in the mine.

Murray American says the case is closed and that Harrison and Stolzenfels will be returning to work next week.

"The decision of the Obama administration's very biased National Labor Relations Board is entirely meaningless," said Murray, the company's CEO, in a statement, adding that "safety is, and always has been, the absolute highest priority" at the company.

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    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.