Just Cause vs. At-Will Employment

(Or Why I Want to Belong to a Union)

The majority of employed people in the state of Michigan are at-will employees. An at-will employee is one the employer can discharge, discipline, or change working conditions at any time for any reason not protected by law. If one believes the action is because of a protected category, the burden of proof is on the employee to prove the protected reason, i.e. age, sex, race etc, is the reason for the adverse employment action. The employer will have seen their lawyer and have a number of non-protected reasons ready.

The union worker, however, is protected by the just cause provision of the union contract. Just cause means one can be disciplined or discharged only if guilty of an offense that you knew about, is consistently enforced, and you have been given warning and progressive discipline where appropriate. The burden of proof is not on the employee, but on the employer to prove that the discipline or discharge is warranted. The union worker has access to the grievance/arbitration system. This allows the case to be processed by experienced union stewards and, if appropriate, heard by an experienced arbitrator.

The long and short of it is that non-union employees have no recourse unless the civil rights or other applicable employment laws have been violated. The employee has the burden of proof, no union to go to bat for the employee, and no union provided lawyer or representative. The cost of any litigation is on the employee, unless the employee can find a contingent fee lawyer - something that is getting harder all the time.

What to do? Be in a union. Get the protection of a just cause employment. Organize if you need to. Fairness is not guaranteed in Michigan. It is only with the union contract that most people have a real chance to contest employer decisions and secure fairness on the job. People often ask what has the union done for me. It has provided the protection of the just cause employment provision for every single day of employment once off probation. Why would anyone work without it.