‘Capital punishment’ in the workplace

In employment law, they speak about a termination or firing as being the “capital punishment” of employment relations.

This may sound dramatic – unless you have been fired.  And, truth be told, if you do not have a labor union, you are really up the creek if you are terminated.

I have a friend who is facing a possible termination. My friend spoke up about unprofessional conduct by a supervisor and, from that moment on, life has been hell.

Speaking up hurts
Prior to this incident, the performance evaluations my friend received were excellent. Subsequent to the incident, however, her work came under question, which then evolved into harassment. She went to the human resources department of their employer but they could or would not do anything.

She attempted to transfer to another department but each time the transfer was blocked, good reviews and interviews notwithstanding. My friend was finally put on a 60-day notice to improve…or else.

Sounds familiar?  It probably does. Most of us have either been fired or know people who have been fired. Contrary to the assumptions that most of us make, there are no laws that protect you from an arbitrary or retaliatory firing except under very specific circumstances.

If you are fired for something that represents a breach of law, such as for race, gender, national origin, religion or handicap, you have a legal recourse. But in most situations, if your employer comes in one day and simply decides that they do not like you or that you are no longer needed, you can be fired.

Labor union needed
In fact, the law is clear that you can be fired for any reason or no reason, unless you have a labor union representing you.

Firings are indeed a form of capital punishment. Your world is turned upside down. If you live paycheck to paycheck, you know what it means if that paycheck stops.

Depending on whether you have any savings, you could, quite literally, be out in the cold (or the heat) with nowhere to go. On top of that, firings do something to your spirit.  Even if you are completely certain that you did nothing to deserve the termination, over time you can start feeling isolated and start blaming yourself.

In today’s economic climate a firing takes on even greater implications. One, it may take you longer to find a new job than it might have 10 years ago. Two, if you have health care insurance, it is probably tied directly to your job, meaning that the loss of the job can have catastrophic consequences.

And, three, our identities are often tied in with our jobs – how we see ourselves, our accomplishments, and unfortunately, our worth.

In many countries a termination can be challenged in a court where, should you win, you may either get your job back or you get a special severance.

Always challenge termination
In the US, that is generally not the case. A labor union is the only means for most workers to gain any sort of workplace justice. Through a grievance and arbitration process, the worker has a right to challenge an alleged injustice such as a wrongful firing.

Workers should not live in fear of being presumed guilty for an alleged infraction and then have to prove their innocence.

So, when someone says that unions are no longer needed, ask them to think about someone that they know, or know of, who has been wrongfully terminated.

Ask them if that person had a union and, if the answer is “no,” what recourse did that person have?  I can guess the answer.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of two books on labor unions, “Solidarity Divided’’ (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) and “They’re bankrupting us” – And twenty other myths about unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.


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