Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Right-to-Work and At-Will Employment

May 15th, 2009 | Barry Butler

When I was still in college, finishing up my Undergraduate Degree, I worked in a high-end hotel in Chapel Hill, NC. In the back next to the time clock was the poster that listed your rights and responsibilities as an employee. Among those was the explanation of Right-to-Work. At the time, I didn’t fully understand it and my Supervisor explained to me that it meant that I did not have to join a Union if I didn’t want to. OK, so what does that have to do with anything? As I become more politically aware and did more work in progressive politics, I learned exactly what it meant to live and work in a Right-to-Work state.

For starters, it weakened Organized Labor’s political power to fight for better wages, better benefits, and to make sure that Union members were not terminated without cause, or At-Will. While I am a pretty independent minded person and I don’t want anyone telling me that I have to join something as a condition of my employment or as part of my way of earning a living, the part that is not talked about as much is the At-Will employment aspect.

The possibility of your job being terminated without cause has always been very unsettling to me. I have always felt that employers have a disproportionate amount of power over employees in this respect. Right-to-Work and At-Will employment are tied together very closely here in Virginia. While I can see some rational with not having to join a Union as a condition of my employment, I am absolutely opposed to the At-Will doctrine for a number of reasons.

While the At-Will doctrine can be exercised by either the employee or the employer, the opportunity for workplace abuses on the part of the employer is much greater. While I can certainly appreciate the rights of the employer, being able to hire people that are qualified and will do work that will make your business or company successful, there has to be a limit to being able to terminate someone without cause. I’ve worked with many different types of people over the years, many of whom I just as soon forget for a wide range of reasons, but what if that annoying co-worker has a point about the way things are done at their place of work and complains? Despite being annoying, they do good work, are reliable, and come to work on time, is it right to fire this person for speaking up or expressing their opinion? If sexual discrimination, or any discrimination for that matter, is occurring in the work place and someone speaks up, is it fair that that person be fired. If the employer is changing a posted schedule for employees without giving them enough notice and the employee speaks up or complains, is it right to fire them? There are other scenarios, but these are some of the ones that seem to be the most common.

In a post on a blog a few months ago, I was disappointed to read that one of the Democratic Candidates for Lt. Governor was a strong supporter of Virginia’s Right-to-Work law. Again, I can see some rational about not being forced to join a Union as a condition of employment, but the At-Will doctrine that is so closely tied to Right-to-Work law needs to change. My suggestion would be to allow businesses or companies to have the right to terminate without cause within a 60 to 90 day probationary period. After this, if an employee is to be fire it has to be for cause. The At-Will doctrine puts too much of the burden on the terminated employee to show they were fired for improper reasons, and too much power in the hands of the employer. Any other thoughts?

About the Author: Barry Butler has been active in progressive politics and social justice since 1998.  He is a native of Virginia from the Southside Hampton Roads area of Chesapeake.  He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University with a degree in Political Science and is a part-time Graduate Student at Duke University.  Barry is a trained political and community organizer, currently involved in blogging and Strategic Consulting projects.  He and his family reside in Campbell County, just south of Lynchburg, VA.

This article originally appeared in Off K Street on May 11, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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