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“Just Cause:" Isn’t it Time for All Workers to Have More Job Security?

The US is alone among industrialized countries that permits “at will” employees. Labor should seize the opportunity to champion the passage of “just cause” standards into state laws.

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!

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