On This May Day, A Radical Idea: What If You Couldn't Be Fired For No Reason?
Today is May Day, also known as International Worker's Day. The first May Day was celebrated here, in America -- with a parade led by one of my personal heroes, anarcho-communist Lucy Parsons -- to commemorate the Haymarket affair. Long story very short, there were protests following an incident at a Chicago factory where striking workers were killed by police. Although they were mostly peaceful, someone threw a bomb (we still don't know who) and eight anarchists, including Parsons' husband Alfred, were found guilty of "conspiracy." Four of them were hanged, and the rest were later pardoned by the governor. While it's still a significant day for laborers across the world, America decided to celebrate its Labor Day in September in order to distance the holiday from its radical roots.
But those of us who are still pretty radical still celebrate it here, and it's still a good day to talk about labor and labor rights. But before we do, I want you to take a moment and think about the most ridiculous reason you, or someone you know, ever got fired. Got it? Good.
In the US, except in Montana, we have "at will employment." This means that most non-union employees can be fired for "no reason or any reason at all." They can be fired because their boss was having a bad day, or because their boss doesn't like their socks, or because a new manager came in and wants to have "their own team." Or because they are using WIC.
Or because they don't use social media.
It's not something anyone really thinks about, because it's so ingrained in our culture that it almost seems bizarre to question it -- but it's actually not the norm for the vast majority of the rest of the world (and Montana), where employers are only allowed to fire people for "just cause."
The way "just cause terminations" work, usually, is that an employee has a trial period of a few months during which they are "at-will" and can be fired for any reason or no reason. After that, however, the employer can only fire them for a good reason. Like doing a bad job or the company needing to do layoffs.
While much of their work hasn't always been as recognized as it should be, white women and people of color have a long ass history in this fight. And for good reason! Because in some instances, unions and labor laws were the only shot anyone had at achieving progressive social aims. People had a far better chance fighting for equal pay by pressuring employers through collective bargaining than they did begging Congress for it.
This is one of those instances in which the best way to achieve a thing we want socially is through economic means.
We talk about #MeToo and sexual harassment, we talk about workplace discrimination, we talk about the wage gap. But take a moment and imagine a world where a woman didn't have to think for a moment, "Oh shit, what if this guy fires me for turning down his advances?" or if people didn't have to worry that they'd be fired for bringing up problems of racism or sexism in the workplace, or if you couldn't be fired for asking for a raise.
But Robyn, you say, most of those things are already illegal. Workplace discrimination is illegal, sexual harassment is illegal, and Title VII protects people from being fired due to their race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation! And yeah. They are illegal. Technically.
Theoretically, Title VII is supposed to protect people from being fired for discriminatory reasons. In reality, things don't always work that way. Federally, it only actually applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, and while many states go further, 14 of them do not (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia). This means that if you live in one of those states and you work in a business that employs fewer than 15 people, you can be fired for discriminatory reasons and it is completely legal. It's also perfectly easy for them to fire you for a discriminatory reason and just say it's for "no reason." You have no evidence, you have no case.
It also only "applies" if you file a civil suit against your employer, and -- as I explained in an article I wrote for Mic -- it's a lot more difficult to successfully sue for employment discrimination than most people who haven't been through it realize.
The only way, really, to be certain that people are not being fired for discriminatory reasons is to require employers to provide a valid reason for why they are firing someone. #MeToo isn't going to translate into real world change for most women until we no longer have to worry if the cost of standing up to sexual harassment is our own economic security. It wouldn't be perfect, nothing is, but it would certainly improve a lot of things for a lot of people.
The bonus to taking this up as a cause, in our various states, is that there's not really a good way for businesses to argue against it, unless they want to come out and say "No! We LIKE to fire people for no good reason." I don't see that going over too well! Probably the only businesses with a really legitimate complaint would be Pepto-Bismol and the makers of Xanax.
There are even arguments to be made that this would actually benefit businesses. Not having terrified employees, for one -- but also having employees that don't avoid telling the boss when they're making a crucial mistake because they're afraid of getting fired.
This is no way to live. It's just not. It's not right that Americans should have to live in fear of losing their income, their ability to support themselves and their families, their health insurance (yes, COBRA exists, but have you applied for it? It is EXPENSIVE AS HELL), their self-esteem and their identity at the whim of an employer. It's just not right. We deserve the same job security that workers in other countries have.
There is another way, and it's worth considering.
Anyway! Have a happy May Day, Wonkers of the world... this is now your open thread! Don't forget to tip us on your way out!
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse