During World War Two, employers were prohibited from raising wages because of wartime Wage and Price controls. With labor in short supply, employers and union leaders sought ways around the government limits and agreed to new health insurance benefits as an alternative to increased compensation. Thus was born our odd system of employer-based health insurance.
That seemed like a good idea at the time because union leaders could achieve through collective bargaining what had been elusive through government reform: health security for their members.
Over the next thirty years or so, health insurance benefits expanded. As more and more workers were covered by private insurance plans provided through their employers, the urgency of winning broad political reforms diminished and labor backing to win universal coverage faded. Our failure to expand the health benefits achieved through collective bargaining to the entire working class eventually left union members in a vulnerable position. At a certain point, union health benefits for the relatively few union members were far more generous than what most workers had. Faced with out-of control health costs employers sought to make cuts and throughout the 90s and 2000s union members increasingly were not able to defend them.
The final result is the very mixed result of ObamaCare, a plan that is sadly not universal and now is actually being used by employers to attack so-called “Cadillac Plans.”
“The United States is alone among industrialized countries in allowing at-will employees to be terminated for arbitrary reasons.”
That lesson shouldn’t be lost as we face what I predict will be the next collective bargaining battleground: the job security provisions of union contracts, including the “just cause” clause.
Instead of waiting for such an attack, we should seize the opportunity to champion 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 at-will employees to be terminated for arbitrary reasons. 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.
Just cause marks the dividing line between employees with job security and “at-will” employees. 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 covered 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 “good cause.”
Winning “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 state or federal legislation, local unions, CLCs (Central Labor Councils) and workers’ centers could seek to enforce a just cause standard through workers’ rights boards and / or community pressure.
A “just cause” campaign would potentially engage working people at many different levels. One can imagine communities declaring certain areas, “Just Cause Zones” and fighting to enforce it as a community standard with employers. Other supporters could be involved using the proposed legislation as a “litmus test” for labor support in electoral campaigns. Still others could be involved in holding hearings on the importance of achieving a “Just Cause” standard and lobbying for passage with city councils and state legislatures.
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 the legislature, let’s get it by forming a union!”
Meanwhile, if employers do 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. Instead, we will have laid important groundwork to win broad public support and the employers’ attack can be parried, perhaps even used to strengthen the broad campaign.
Imagine the labor movement leading a campaign to win Just Cause protections for all workers. The sooner we get started the better!
This article was originally posted on Union Review on January 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party. He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy.