Know Your Rights: Just Cause

Hotel Voice, Spring 2022

Imagine you go to work one day wearing a blue shirt, only to discover that your boss hates the color blue, and he fires you for wearing it. Absurd, right? But this is perfectly legal in the United States because we are an employment-at-will country. At-will employment means that there is no job security, an employee can be legally fired for any reason, including for no reason or for a bad reason.

Every non-union employee in the country is considered an at-will employee, the only workers who are protected from the precarity of at-will employment are union members. Union members benefit from “just cause” contract language, which says that an employee cannot be disciplined or terminated without a justified and proven reason.

Just cause has been a mainstay of almost every union contract since the 1930s across nearly every industry. It is considered such a crucial protection that it is usually one of the first things negotiated by most unions. Without just cause language in the contract, an employer has complete control in the workplace and workers have to tiptoe on eggshells knowing at any minute, for no good reason or no reason at all, they could be terminated.

Just cause also makes the workplace fairer because it requires that rules be made clear to the workforce and to be enforced fairly. Managers cannot discriminate in how they treat their employees: if a rule applies to one person, it applies to everyone. In non-union workplaces, management is legally prohibited only from discriminating on the basis of protected status (race, gender, national origin, age, disability etc.). But the sad reality is that, far too often management gets away with discrimination anyway. When management can fire someone for no reason at all, it is much harder to prove that the firing was motived by, for example, race. But when there are clearly understood standards for what is considered a firing offense and the rules have to be applied consistently, it is much easier to prove when someone has been discriminated against.

Without just cause language, our contract would have no teeth. It would be far too easy for employers to get rid of strong union delegates and committed rank and file members. As Union members, we are some of the select few in this country with the right to challenge an unjust termination or discipline and that is key to our workplace power and security. If you or a coworker believe you were unjustly terminated or disciplined, contact your business agent immediately by calling 212-245-8100.