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Labor

Just Cause, not Just ‘Cuz

Here’s why it’s so critical to workers in Tennessee that Bernie’s labor program includes a national Just Cause law.

Tennessee is what’s called an “at-will employment” state. That means it’s legal here for your boss to fire you without cause—or “just ‘cuz.” Literally, unless you’re working under a union contract where just-cause terms have been negotiated or you have a good management job with a similar contract, you can be fired at any time, for almost any reason, with absolutely no warning. “At-will employment” is, in reality, nothing but “fire-at-will employment.”

Interestingly, it’s also a uniquely American doctrine. Just about everywhere else the right to continued employment has strong protection. Employers elsewhere are, for example, required to provide good cause when they terminate any worker who has completed their 3 to 6 month probationary period; otherwise they must provide advance notice periods and/or severance pay, both of which give the worker financial security while searching for replacement employment. In other words, no worker is ever just thrown out the door at a boss’s whim.

“Freedom” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in America, but living in fear of losing our jobs over things that have nothing to do with our job performance is the antithesis of freedom for the common working person.

At-will employment curtails our freedom to say no to things we shouldn’t even be asked to do in the first place, like work under unsafe conditions, donate to the boss’s favorite charity, be present—without pay—on the worksite fifteen minutes before our actual scheduled work time, show up to work with a contagious illness, ignore bad behavior from customers or coworkers, or work an opening shift hours after closing.

It also curtails our freedom to be our real selves, because when your boss doesn’t need a “cause” to fire you, anything you do or don’t do, whether it relates to your ability to perform your job or not, can cause you to lose your paycheck.

This includes simply presenting as yourself, which is why many LGBT/Q people still, even today, make the choice to hide who they are from their bosses and coworkers. And it’s why, despite the Equal Employment Opportunity’s Compliance Manual on Race and Color Discrimination setting forth guidelines that protect people from employment discrimination over their hair, many Black and Hispanic women with naturally kinky (so-called “ethnic”) hair continue to subject themselves to expensive and damaging—sometimes permanently so—treatments. When bosses are under no obligation to provide cause for termination, it’s extremely easy for them to maintain “plausible deniability” when they really just didn’t like that you stopped styling your hair “white” or that you have a photo of you and your non-hetero partner in your cubicle.

Freedom is being able to relax your hair because you want to; it’s being able to keep your private life private because you want to—and not because your boss might be a bigot.

At-will employment also diminishes our freedom to organize for even the most basic workplace improvements—a little more advanced notice on scheduling, say, or the right to keep water at our workstations—significantly more difficult, never mind organizing to get the kinds of changes and protections we workers all deserve, like living wages, paid sick leave, control over our schedules, a say in how our jobs get done, and much, much more.

A national Just Cause law would protect all of us—and give us considerably more freedom—by laying out clear guidelines for grounds for termination, guidelines that every employer would have to follow. It would also lay out the steps that an employer must take before they can let someone go, and it would include remedies for workers who are unjustly fired.

But we don’t merely need a Just Cause law. We need a strong Just Cause law, one shaped by workers and their unions, not by businesses and their powerful lobbying associations. The latter will riddle the legislation with boss-friendly loopholes and hurdles. The one state in the U.S. that has just cause legislation in place is an example of such weakened legislation. It not only allows employers to determine the length of probationary periods, which means that companies can force employees to be “at will” for whatever period they decide, but it exempts (through court decisions) seasonal workers from just-cause protections completely: when they are hired back on in subsequent seasons, they are considered “new employees” each time, subject, each time, to the probationary period, which, of course, exceeds the length of the season.

Additionally, the legislation’s language was written such that employers saw a loophole: they could simply write employment contracts that had employees sign away their rights to just cause. That loophole was ultimately closed, but it took 24 years, a lot of resources, and a fight that went all the way to the state supreme court to get there.

Montana’s law also allows workers to be fired for mere “unsatisfactory performance.” You may be surprised to learn that in many countries, “poor job performance” is actually not held to be “good cause” for firing. Employers are expected to work with their employees, using training and other measures, to improve job performance. Termination is a last resort—and that termination will include notice and/or severance pay. Montana requires neither advance notice periods nor severance pay for terminations over unsatisfactory job performance.

It also doesn’t go as far as it could in protecting workers from termination for what are called “economic reasons”—that’s when a company is closing or down-sizing a department or facility. In some countries, employers are expected to make the effort to find other jobs for these employees. Termination is, again, viewed as a last resort—as it should be.

These countries have not tanked their businesses and economies with these laws. What they’ve done is provided stability, due process, and incentives to invest in workers rather than discard them.

To get the strong Just Cause law workers in this country need and deserve, we must fight. Bernie Sander’s Workplace Democracy Plan, alongside his strong, decades-long support for workers and his candidacy for president, brings national reach to these ideas, and that’s huge. But we—the people, the masses, the working class—are the only force with the power to roll this engine forward, over the powerful interests of the capitalist class, to a real victory for workers. If you labor, the labor movement needs you in order to win this fight. If you don’t have a union, come to DSA meetings. If you do have a union, come to DSA meetings too. Coalitions are going to win this thing—coalitions of working people recognizing the need and fighting for change.

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