End The Doctrine of At Will Employment

TUESDAY, JULY 30, 2013


I’m glad to see a few other working class activists besides myself finally beginning to speak out about the need for a struggle to put an end to “At-Will Employment” although we need to put an end to “At-Will Hiring and At-Will Firing” which would assure fairness and non-discrimination when it comes to both hiring and firing.

It is bad enough employers have the “right” to exploit the labor of workers; employers shouldn’t have the “right” to determine who should work and who shouldn’t work based on any forms of discrimination— be it age, sex, racial, political thinking & ideology or whether workers are engaged in union organizing activities, drives & campaigns.

Class collaboration among the top circles of leaders of organized labor has prevented a campaign to repeal “At-will hiring and At-will firing” since these labor “leaders” believe employers have more rights than workers and they are for going along to get along with employers which has proven to be detrimental to union organizing as the declining membership in unions proves.

When I introduced a resolution to repeal “At-Will Hiring and At-Will Firing” at the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s State Convention in Duluth, it was then Minnesota AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron and his little toady, Mark Froemke, who organized opposition to the resolution— more organizing than either of these labor-fakers have done in their entire lives. This resolution was defeated by about a 70% majority vote which tells us a great deal about the commitment of the Democratic Party for justice for working people; and, it tells us a great deal about why organized labor, while doing the bidding of employers, can’t organize Wal-mart, Marvin Windows and Doors, Arctic Cat, Polaris, Digi-Key or any of the other large non-union employers in Minnesota… there is even the huge Northshore mining operation that Cleveland Cliffs operates that the huge United Steel Workers Union hasn’t been able to organize because all the rank-and-file organizers keep getting fired because of “At-Will.” Then there was the failed Canal Park organizing fiasco where organized labor couldn’t even organize a couple hotels… again, because of “At-Will Employment.”

Not one single Democratic Party politician has had the moral or political courage to take on the repeal of “At-Will Employment.” What does this tell us about the Democratic Party and labor?

When I first brought forward Precinct Caucus resolutions to repeal “At-Will Employment” here in Minnesota I was told by every single sitting member of the DFL Caucus in the State Legislature that the obstacle was Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty. Well, now there is a Democratic Party super-majority with a billionaire Democratic governor supported by the Rockefellers claiming to be sympathetic to organized labor and the State Senate leader is Tom Bakk who claims to be a leader of the Building and Construction Trades unions and working people can’t even get a hearing on the repeal of “At-will hiring and At-will firing.” Of course, these same labor loving Democrats left Minnesota’s Minimum Wage at $6.25 an hour, too; below the Minimum Wages of Mississippi and even North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Not one single labor “leader” from Change To Win or AFL-CIO unions in Minnesota has brought forward the need to repeal “At-will hiring; At-will firing;” why not? Because they fear a struggle with employers and their Democratic Party partners over this issue.

Unless At-will hiring and At-will firing are both confronted at the same time I doubt we can successfully replace At Will Employment with “Just Cause” because workers of color, women and the youth understand that they will remain the last hired and never get jobs in the first place… this is why for over 40 years I have pushed the idea that we need to challenge the “rights” of employers over hiring and firing. Here in Minnesota, fair employment hiring could take place through the Minnesota Workforce Centers with these government centers matching workers to employment opportunities; why would any employer not want to get employees through these centers which employ professionals? One reason only— employers want complete control over workers and their work-forces.

The repeal of “At-will hiring; At-will firing” is all about justice and democracy… it is all about workers, who are human beings, forced by economic circumstances and an unjust economic system being entitled to human rights.

The “Doctrine of At Will Employment” has to go— it is a thoroughly reactionary concept dating back to the days of the emerging industrial industrial revolution when employers believed they had the “right” to treat workers like shit.

Here is an interesting perspective deserving of wide discussion:

The United States is alone among industrialized countries in allowing workers to be considered “at will” employees and dismissed for any reason – justified or not, unless protected by a union contract or individual agreement. Labor should seize the opportunity to champion the passage of “just cause” standards into state laws. It’s a labor law reform proposal that will appeal to all workers while putting employers on the defensive.
July 30, 2013 4:03 pm

The next collective bargaining battleground is likely to be the job security provisions of union contracts, including the “just cause” clause.

Instead of waiting for such an attack, labor should seize the opportunity to champion the passage of “just cause” standards into state laws. It’s a labor law reform proposal that will appeal to all workers while putting employers on the defensive.

It’s long overdue.

The United States is alone among industrialized countries in allowing workers to be considered “at will” employees and dismissed for any reason – justified or not, unless protected by a union contract or individual agreement. Governments such as France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom require employers to have a “just cause” to dismiss non-probationary employees. Just cause appeals to basic fairness, just as due process does in court. Workers who believe they have been fired unfairly have the opportunity to contest their dismissals before various types of industrial tribunals. In the U.S., such recourse is available only to public employees with civil service protection and/or union-represented workers with access to a negotiated grievance/arbitration procedure.

At-will employees have no job security: they can be fired for a mistake, an argument with a supervisor, a critical comment about the enterprise or management, taking a sick day, a complaint about working conditions or pay, or involvement in outside political campaigns – all activities that just-cause protected workers can take part in without worry.

One state has passed a law: The Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act was passed in 1987. Applicable to non-union non-probationary employees, it prohibits discharges without good cause, allows workers to sue for up to four years of back pay, and provides a method for workers to recover attorneys’ fees. Despite fear-mongering by opponents, the Big Sky state’s robust economic growth has not been affected. Statutes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands also prohibit termination without the slightly more ambiguous “good cause.”

Winning state “just cause” legislation would certainly not be easy. But building a movement to win it offers union leaders and activists an opportunity to champion an issue that would benefit all workers and also help union growth. Short of winning state legislation, local unions, Central Labor Councils and workers’ centers could seek to enforce a community “just cause” standard through workers’ rights boards and / or strategically applied public pressure on employers.

A “just cause for all” campaign could engage working people at many different levels. One can imagine communities declaring certain areas “just cause zones” while other activists could be involved using the proposed legislation as a “litmus test” for politicians to gain labor support in electoral campaigns. Still others could be involved in holding hearings on the importance of achieving a “just cause for all” standard and lobbying for resolutions with their city councils.

Some union leaders have voiced concerns that winning just cause for all could make the main reason workers join unions irrelevant. However, if just cause campaigns succeed, workers will have more security to participate in union campaigns. Union leaders and organizers will be able to make the point that they are experts at enforcing just cause protections and can provide representation at hearings etc.

Even if campaigns for just cause do not succeed, millions of non-union workers will learn about the concept (especially if campaigns are based on ballot referendums) and the increased security it could bring to their lives. By popularizing the just cause concept, more workers may respond by thinking, “If we can’t get this important protection through legislation, let’s get it by forming a union!”

Meanwhile, when employers seek to roll back the just cause articles in our contracts, union members won’t be in the same position we were with the attacks on health care and defined benefit pensions. Instead, we will have laid important groundwork to fend off the employers’ attack by building broader public support for union job security provisions.

Imagine the labor movement leading a $50 to $100 million campaign over the next five years to win just cause protections for all workers in eight to ten states where grassroots movements have shown a desire to pursue it. Employers (and their political handmaidens) would be on the defensive. Most likely they would spend five or ten times more than our side to defend the “freedom to fire.” By over-reaching, it would actually help us raise more awareness about the importance of having just cause job protections.

A major Just Cause for All campaign would make labor a champion of the 99 percent and spur more workers to form unions. The sooner we get started the better!

Rand Wilson is currently on the staff of SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and has been active in community-labor coalition building for more than 30 years. This article is adapted from a forth-coming article in Democratic Left.

Posted in Uncategorized. Comments Off on End The Doctrine of At Will Employment
%d bloggers like this: