Workers Deserve Just Cause Discipline

In the last month and a half, I have witnessed 6 workers in the fast food industry in Portland be terminated.

What trespass had they committed to invoke the Management equivalent of capital punishment? They were all guilty of fighting for their fellow workers to have safe working conditions,  be able to pay their bills, and to maybe…just maybe… avoid the indignities of living paycheck-to-paycheck in 2019 America.

All of them were either members of the Little Big Union (who only recently took their campaign public), or the Burgerville Workers Union (in the midst of the fight for a historic first union contract), and none of them deserved the shameful treatment they received.

In the sadness of thinking about their plight, and the long fights ahead to right the wrongs that were done, I couldn’t help but think about a disempowering phrase that has been trained into the reflexes of my generation.  Repeated countless times to workers who came of age during the Great Recession, sometimes as well-meaning advice, other times as a thinly veiled threat…

Just be thankful you have a job.

On the surface not an altogether shocking phrase, I’d contend that the implications between each word are odious. Right now less than 8% of the private sector workforce in America are Union members.  I believe this speaks to the reality that many of my peers have learned to keep their heads down in the face of abuse, drudgery, and unbearable stress… rather than glimpse side-to-side, and fight back in unity!

One of the many paradigm shifting Union realities that has made a difference in my life, has been understanding Just Cause Discipline, which has become a standard feature in practically all Union contracts. On occasion I’ve noticed longtime Labor activists not fully explain the remarkable difference that it can mean to young workers who have known nothing but its alternative, namely At-Will Employment.

The crux of At-Will Employment is this: an employer can at any time and for any reason, even the mere end of their will to keep you employed, or no reason at all, terminate you without cause.  Besides the most blatant discrimination involving legally protected classes, there is essentially no legal remedy – nothing – that a worker fired by an at-will employer can do when they get a pink slip.

This is, in a microcosm, essentially a system that enshrines the absence of due process.  That absent of facts, representation with counsel, appeal rights… summary judgment can be issued from on-high, and that’s that!

That notion offends me, so much so that I’ll take it a step further and say that At-Will Employment is an evil and should be confronted as such.  Just Cause Discipline in a contract enshrines basic fairness that should be the reality for every worker.

Just Cause Discipline (far from the anti-Union trope of making it impossible to fire anyone), means all instances of discipline from Management must be evaluated against 7 objective tests:

  1. Was the employee warned about potential consequences?
  2. Was the rule or order reasonably related to efficient and safe operations?
  3. Did management investigate before disciplining?
  4. Was the investigation fair and objective?
  5. Did the investigation produce substantial proof of guilt?
  6. Were the rules, orders, and penalties applied evenhandedly?
  7. Was the penalty commensurate to the seriousness of the offense and the past record?

There is no promise in the world that a boss can make that will ensure that the simple questions posed above are followed and enforced. Knowing that those 7 fair questions guide the discipline that I may receive has freed me from feeling like I arrive at work insecure, threatened, and powerless.  In truth, that sense of freedom and workplace democracy is what I want for every single worker that I know, and is part of why I organize and continue to fight!

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