A federal appeals court has upheld a 2014 ruling that a Jimmy John's franchisee in the Twin Cities violated the union organizing rights of six employees by firing them for publicly protesting the company's sick leave policy.

In a ruling issued Friday, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the earlier finding by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which supported an administrative law judge's ruling in 2012 that the workers should be reinstated and given back pay.

Representatives from MikLin Enterprises, which owns 10 Jimmy John's franchises, could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Last year, the company asked the appeals court to review the NLRB's order holding that MikLin engaged in unfair labor practices. The labor relations board, meanwhile, asked the court to enforce its order.

Workers said they were pleased with the ruling, but criticized the process for taking too much time.

"We were fired more than five years ago, illegally, for warning the public that our lack of paid sick days meant that they could end up eating sandwiches tainted by germs," said Max Specktor, one of the employees, in a statement. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

The workers are allied with the Industrial Workers of the World, a union that tried to organize MikLin's restaurants in 2010. Workers rejected the union by a vote of 87-85, but pro-union workers continued a campaign that highlighted their lack of paid sick leave.

In early 2011, pro-union workers placed posters around town displaying two identical Jimmy John's sandwiches, with one described as made by a healthy worker and the other by a sick worker. "Can't tell the difference?" the poster said. "That's too bad, because Jimmy John's workers don't get paid sick days."

MikLin fired six workers and issued written warnings to three others who were involved in the poster campaign. The company argued the posters were "disloyal," and therefore not protected speech under federal labor law.

Two of three NLRB workers sided with workers in the 2014 ruling. The ruling issued Friday was somewhat split as well, with two judges siding with the workers and one judge dissenting from parts of the majority opinion.

"We cannot say the [NLRB] majority erred in finding that the statements fell short of unprotected disloyalty and disparagement. …" the court majority wrote. "There was substantial evidence in the record tying the effort to obtain paid sick leave with the effect that the lack of paid sick leave could have on MikLin's product."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck