A Just Cause
July 16, 2012 9:30 am
By Matthew McDermott
Rand Wilson, the organizing director of Boston’s Service Employees Local 888, published a brilliant editorial in Labor Notes last week on broadening labor’s political priorities. Mr. Wilson suggests that the unsuccessful four-year push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made forming a union easier, contained valuable lessons for organizers.
While the initiative would undoubtedly have benefited all workers, only union members or those who might attempt to form a union had vested interest in supporting the legislation (the EFCA revolved around “card check” elections). With union membership at just 7%, Wilson argues that labor should push for new legislation that will benefit union members and ordinary workers: a “just cause” provision that will bar employers from firing non-probationary workers.
Past reforms led by the labor movement have won minimum wages, health and safety regulations, child labor laws and prohibitions against discrimination. And whenever the labor movement was on the offensive fighting for all workers, union membership grew.
What’s left to achieve that might inspire all workers — union and non-union alike?
“Employment security” could be the remaining frontier. A campaign to pass state laws requiring “just cause” before a worker is fired could also spur union growth, since one of the top reasons workers are afraid of organizing is the knowledge they are likely to be terminated.
Wilson uses Montana as a case study of the ramifications of a “just cause” law. Montana passed the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act in 1987. Despite hand-wringing on the part of the corporate lobby, Montana’s economy is not in the doldrums due to employee protections. Montana’s union membership is also at 14.6 percent — twice the national average.
Traditional unions and non-traditional workers groups have formed coalitions here in Los Angeles and elsewhere (see this story on community groups working with unions at Grocery Stores in Brooklyn). With union membership so low, unions need to rally behind the benefits of worker protections and union membership on all workers as a political message. This is already happening in grassroots efforts to organize the service industry — yet on a broader scale, what Wilson suggests could change the dialogue on workers’ issues, just as Occupy has given us a new way of talking about economic injustice.
Even if campaigns for just cause do not succeed, they would be an opportunity to educate millions of not-yet-union workers about the concept (especially if the campaign used ballot referendums) and the increased job security it could bring to their lives.
By popularizing the just cause concept and raising expectations, more workers may respond by thinking, “If we can’t get this protection through the legislature, let’s get it by forming a union!”
For Wilson, it’s not whether you win or lose — it’s who is watching the game.
Image from here