Can They Do That? Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace
Lynn Gobbell was fired because her boss didn’t like the John Kerry bumper sticker on her car.
In Colorado, teacher Meg Spohn got the pink slip from DeVry University for complaining about her job on her personal blog.
At Best Lock Company in Indiana, workers are axed for social drinking because the company president believes it’s a sin.
Can Employers do that?
You betcha, writes human rights attorney Lewis Maltby. He’s president and founder of the National Workrights Institute, which he formed after leading the American Civil Liberties Union office on free speech and privacy protection in the corporate world.
Before heading up the Workrights Institute, Maltby had spent time in the corporate world where “learning how to run a productive, profitable company without violating employees’ human rights” became the focus of his life. Right up front in “Can They Do That,” Maltby gets to the crux of the misconception most people have when facing unfair treatment on the job.
The United States Constitution applies to the government, not to corporations.
Not to corporations and most certainly not to the workers who enter those corporations hoping to get a paycheck. This comes as a surprise to many. Here at the AFL-CIO, we get e-mails from people detailing how their employer unfairly fired them, and asking what they can do about it. Chances are, if they’re not in a union, and if the action didn’t violate any Equal Employment Opportunity laws, the answer is: Not much.
And even if a company does violate a worker’s legal rights, many corporations have got that covered, too:
Almost 20 percent of employers today require all employees to agree in advance not to go to court if the company violates their legal rights…If you don’t agree, you don’t get the job.
And as Maltby notes, even joining a union “has become a dangerous undertaking.”
Over 8,000 employees are fired every year simply for trying to join [a union]. Technically, this kind of firing is illegal, but the penalties are so trivial that employers just pay the fines and keep breaking the law.
Which is why we have been trying so hard to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Unlike many books on employment, Maltby includes an entire chapter overviewing unions and labor laws and ending with his personal recollection of helping move Wisconsin Republican Sen. Herbert Kohl toward sponsorship of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Unionization is covered by the National Labor Relations Act, an act of Congress, and union workers covered by contracts they negotiate with their employers. But the nation’s employment laws have historically been governed by common law (court decisions) and so for those not represented by a union, the primarily law of the land is “at-will employment.” In short: Management can fire you at will, for any reason, or no reason.
Maltby highlights high-tech workplace intrusion: from computer monitoring to video spying on women in the company restroom (yep, legal, except in California and Rhode Island). He also takes a look at the future of privacy at the workplace, and predicts an increasing use of GPS and the likely adoption of biometrics on the horizon. Horrifyingly, Maltby writes that some employers are beginning to install silicon chips into employees’ bodies as an identification system—you know, the kind you get implanted in your pet.
And then there’s the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a job-screening psychology test taken by 2 million people as part of the employment application process. The test has been translated into 115 languages, and 89 of the Fortune 100 employers use it. An all-American export.
Throughout, Maltby filters the book with real-life workplace horror stories—the kind we see by the droves whenever the AFL-CIO community affiliate Working America holds its My Bad Boss contest. (If anyone tells you employees don’t need unions in today’s 21st workplace, send them to the My Bad Boss site.)
Maltby’s view of the judicial system’s approach to workers’ rights—especially the Supreme Court—also would shock much of the public. In short:
Even when there is a law to protect your rights on the job, you often won’t receive justice. Judges work overtime to find ways to take away, or water down, the rights given by the legislature.
And he blasts away another holy grail of American mythology: The myth of impartial justice.
Because judges are politicians, they respond to political pressures. They favor prosecutors over defense attorneys in criminal cases because the public wants them to be tough on crime….And they favor employers over employees because employers have more political influence than employees.
Next, Maltby will tell us that the media in the United States are biased.
Maltby ends the book with chapters detailing our workplace rights and how we can win our rights, which includes joining a union. In short, the only way we can take back our workplace is joining with each other. Because as Maltby says:
There isn’t much you can do alone to protect yourself.
This book should be part of every high school curricula. Millions of Americans plunge into the job force with no idea that they leave their constitutional rights at the door.
Help me welcome Lewis Maltby.