Some notions die hard. Can you believe that in the 21st Century, employees are still referred to as servants and employers are called masters under the law? Well, if you're an at-will employee these terms are accurate.
Over 60 million Americans go to work each day and turn their lives over to the whims of their boss. Over 2 million are fired each year and an estimated 200,000 are never given a reason according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
At-will employment, and its legal underpinnings, began early in the history of our country. The term arose from the need to differentiate between slaves, indentured servants and free labor. The legal relationships between slaves and their masters and indentured servants and their masters were easy to define. These workers had no rights.
However, free labor had the right to quit – a big step up from slavery and servitude – while the master retained the right to fire. This became known as at-will employment. In the 1800s, some workers began to sue their employers and the courts largely dismissed their cases citing at-will employment. Thus, the term worked its way into our legal framework.
Now, jump ahead to modern America. Imagine that you are injured at work and you need a few days to recover. You file for workers' compensation benefits and think that when you’ve recovered you can return to work. But, the boss fires you! What do you do? You hire a lawyer. You believe that in America you can exercise your legal right to file a claim without retaliation. But, the court see things differently and rules that you have no legal standing because of your at-will status.
In August 1997, this is exactly what happened to a Pennsylvania man. The Pennsylvania Superior court ruled that as an at-will employee, not covered by a contract (such as a union contract), the "employer may terminate an employee at any time for any reason or for no reason."
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself? Organize a union. Organize under the IAM banner.
While some laws may protect you from certain forms of discrimination or whistle blowing, if you're lucky enough to be covered, you'll probably have to hire an attorney to pursue the case. Organizing a union and bargaining an employment contract is your best protection against employment at-will. Most union contracts provide what's called a "just cause standard," which means you have something enforceable under the agreement, with a grievance and arbitration procedure. In the event of a disagreement, a third, neutral party makes the final decision on whether the company had "just cause" as opposed to "just because" in a termination situation.