If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, it is hard to ignore the countless allegations and cases of factious workplace violations. The #MeToo social movement and the “Time’s Up” campaign at this year’s Golden Globes award show have called attention to the numerous sexual harassment scandals involving notable celebrities like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein. In a time when our country is already divided, these hot-button issues can either unite us or sever us more.

You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with unions?” Employee protection. It circulates back to an employee disciplinary ideology of “just cause” that unions utilize versus more binding at-will employment.

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Just-Cause Versus At-Will Employment

In just-cause employment, union workers are protected by a just-cause condition under a labor union contract. This provision states that a union worker can only be disciplined or let go if found guilty of committing a violation that he or she knew about, was regularly enforced, and/or received a warning and appropriate punishment before discharge.

Employers that utilize just-cause employment are required to prove that the level of discipline was warranted by the employee’s own misconduct or rule violation. The union worker also has the option of using the grievance/arbitration system. His or her case can be processed by union representatives and reviewed by a qualified mediator.

At-will employment, on the other hand, gives employers the right to dismiss, penalize and change employees’ working conditions as they see fit for any reason not protected by the law. If the worker believes the law protects his or her action, it’s up to him or her to prove the protected reason (age, sex, race, etc.) is the reason for employer discharge. In at-will employment, the employer will come at the employee with guns blazing, with its attorney ready with a list of nonprotected reasons in the employer’s defense.

How Does This Affect Me? 

It’s fairly easy to detect the objective versus subjective undertones of each disciplinary move. The goal of just-cause employment, when executed properly, is for union workers to have more freedom in declining unfair requests that have nothing to do with their jobs, like running employers’ personal errands or receiving suggestive threats. Union workers could also resist mandatory overtime that was voluntary or unfair schedule changes that cancel pre-approved time off.

The positives are twofold: employees are still held responsible for their own actions but can receive support in protecting their innocence until proven guilty. Union employees have elected representatives to back them up and assist in holding parties accountable. In short, there are more options for recourse with just-cause employment.

Conversely, bosses hold all the power with at-will employment. Non-union members with at-will employment do not have this kind of support and must bear the burden of truth on their own, including litigation costs. The risk of potentially losing their jobs, reputations, and livelihoods often hinders employees from speaking up, much to the chagrin of cronies in power.

Just-cause employment is not a new idea by any means. Democracies all over the world operate on this premise. However, it’s difficult to advance when it’s being thwarted at every turn by opposing politicians looking to take many traditional rights and protections from public-sector employees. It’s gotten to a place where even union workers aren’t safe. Despite having the right to organize and collectively bargain, union workers are too often fired for organizing and left to bear the cost of proving ill intent.

Moving Forward

What’s failing to be addressed is that we’ve reached a point where just-cause employment is a necessity for achieving the most democratic process and upholding moral standards. Employees need to be protected against wrongful discharge. Montana passed a law years ago that provides partial protection against wrongful discharge claims. But, we still have a long way to go. Increased public cases of extreme sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace have revealed deep-seeded issues in employee rights violations that are just now making their way to the forefront. Morality is in the balance, and it’s up to us to break the trend.

Awareness is a good place to start. If you have the option of just-cause employment, why wouldn’t you take it? Choosing to join a union is a step towards equipping yourself with the resources to combat these issues while surrounding yourself with people who work with you and for you in times of need.

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