In the US you can be fired for any or no reason—it doesn’t have to be this way

The United States is an employment “at-will” country.  That means, absent a union contract, a boss can fire a worker for almost any, or even no reason, and without advance notice.  Well—with the exception of Montana.  As the state’s employment division explains: “Montana is not an ‘at-will’ state. . . generally, once an employee has completed the established probationary period, the employer needs to have good cause for termination.”  

While Montana is the exception in the United States, the United States is the exception among developed capitalist economies.  In those other countries, most workers can only be dismissed for “just cause,” with just cause statutorily or judicially defined.  For example, German workers employed for more than six months by a company with more than ten workers cannot simply be dismissed.  The company must have a valid business or personal conduct reason.  Moreover, the company is also required to notify the employee in advance, and in writing, of their termination.  Many employees also receive severance pay proportional to their length of employment.

So, how big a deal is employment at-will in the United States? According to the results of a recent survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), carried out by YouGov, more than two out of three workers who have been discharged received no reason or an unfair reason for their termination. Almost three out of four received no warning before discharge.

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System change, class war, and the WW2 economic conversion experience

The climate crisis has driven our planet into uncharted territory. We are close to breaching critical environmental thresholds, setting in motion destabilizing changes to our global climate system that could well make the earth unlivable for humans and countless other species.  We must decrease carbon emissions as rapidly as possible and there is no way to do that without significantly changing the operation and aims of our economy.  But not just any change will do.  It must be one that also promotes worker empowerment and solidarity, community well-being and security, and democracy.

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The Supreme Court: working hard to make a business-friendly America

President Calvin Coolidge, in a January 1925 speech to newspaper editors, asserted that “the chief business of the American people is business.”  The claim, although far from true, did capture the short-lived success of business leaders in structuring the country’s social institutions for the benefit of the wealthy.

Tragically, we appear well into another period when business needs and desires are promoted as consistent with American values and enshrined into law.  The pro-business orientation of the current Roberts Supreme Court highlights this reality. As Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati show in their paper “A Century of Business in the Supreme Court, 1920-2020”:

the Roberts Court may be the most pro-business Court in a century. The win rate for business in the Roberts Court, 63.4 percent, is 15 percentage points higher than the next highest rate of business wins over the past century.

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Slip slidin’ away—the disappearing practice of overtime pay

Slip slidin’ away—that is what tends to happen to pro-worker reforms in our economic system.  Things are structured so that without constant vigilance and struggle on our part, gains are gradually undone.  A case in point: overtime pay.

It wasn’t that long ago that most workers in the US were eligible for time and half pay for every hour worked beyond a 40-hour work week.  Employers didn’t agree to overtime pay out of the goodness of their hearts.  They did it because worker organizing and activism pressured Congress to pass a labor law requiring, although with some important exceptions, the payment of overtime wages.  Now, a significant number of workers no longer have the right to overtime pay. For example, in 1975 more than 60 percent of salaried workers automatically qualified for time and half pay.  That share fell to a low of 4 percent in 2000 before slowly rising to 15 percent in 2020.

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Labor law failings, workplace organizing challenges, and possibilities for union renewal

If you follow the news it must seem like joining a union is a step outside the norms of US law.  Afterall, the media is full of stories about how big companies like Starbucks and Amazon threaten their pro-union workers with dismissal, spy on their employees and deny them the right to meet and share information during legally mandated break and meal times, require their workers to participate in 1-on-1 and group meetings with managers where they are routinely told lies about what unions do and the consequences of unionization, find ways to delay promised union elections, and refuse to negotiate a contract even after workers have successfully voted for unionization. 

Yet, the National Labor Relations Act, which is the foundational statute governing private sector labor law, boldly asserts that workers should be able to freely organize to improve the conditions of their employment.  As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states:

The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity.

So, one might reasonably ask, how do businesses get away with the kind of behavior highlighted above?  One answer is that a series of Supreme Court decisions and NLRB rulings have reinterpreted the country’s labor laws in ways that have given employers a free pass to engage in a variety of anti-worker actions.  Another is that Congress has refused to adequately fund the NLRB, leaving the organization unable to hire sufficient staff to do the needed investigations of worker complaints and oversee elections even during the rare periods when the NLRB has actively sought to protect worker rights.

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Making the Green New Deal real: lessons from the World War II conversion experience

The Green New Deal has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to build a mass movement capable of addressing our ever worsening, and increasingly interrelated, climate and social crises.  Building such a movement is no simple task, but I believe that our organizing efforts can greatly benefit from a careful study of the rapid transformation of the US economy from civilian to military production during World War II. 

In two recent publications, with links below, I describe and evaluate the planning process responsible for the wartime transformation and offer my thoughts on some of the key lessons to be learned. In what follows I highlight some of the reasons why I believe Green New Deal advocates would benefit from careful study of the wartime experience.

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US workers in motion: an assessment of labor’s gains

The news has recently highlighted labor’s growing activism, publishing numerous stories about high quit rates, threatened and actual strikes, and wage gains.  While these stories do capture the anger and determination of workers who have suffered through the pandemic with limited compensation for dramatically increased workloads while watching profits soar, they also paint an overly optimistic picture of the gains being made. And now, the media seems mesmerized by the threat of inflation, with those advocating austerity increasingly given prominent play.  The reality is that the labor movement has a long struggle ahead and it should not be distracted by unwarranted fears of inflation.

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Economic inequality means retirement insecurity for most US households

This is far from a “hot take”: financial wealth in the United States is highly concentrated, with most households, especially Black and Hispanic households, owning few financial assets.  One consequence is that many Americans are likely to face a very challenging retirement.  Sadly, if economic and social conditions remain as they are, we can expect to see an ever-growing number turn to for-profit crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, for help in meeting expenses. 

The study

A recently published study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit research and education organization, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, paints a disturbing picture of the distribution of financial assets by generation, net worth and race. 

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Playing the capitalist game: heads they win, tails you lose

According to an Economic Policy Institute report, between 28 and 47 percent of U.S. private sector workers are subject to noncompete agreements.  In brief, noncompete agreements (or noncompetes) are provisions in an employment contract that ban workers from leaving their job to work for a “competitor” that operates in the same geographic area, for a given period of time.  In a way, it’s an attempt to recreate the power dynamics of the employer-dominated company towns of old—with workers unable to change employers if they want to continuing working in the same industry.

It is not just top executives that are forced to accept a noncompete agreement.  Companies also use them to restrict the employment freedom of many low wage workers, including janitors, security guards, fast food workers, warehouse workers, personal care aids, and room cleaners.  In fact, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that almost a third of all businesses require that all of their workers sign noncompetes, regardless of their job duties or pay.

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Realizing a Green New Deal: Lessons from World War II

Many activists in the United States support a Green New Deal transformation of the economy in order to tackle the escalating global climate crisis and the country’s worsening economic and social problems.  At present, the Green New Deal remains a big tent idea, with advocates continuing to debate what it should include and even its ultimate aims.[1]  Although perhaps understandable given this lack of agreement, far too little attention has been paid to the process of transformation.  That is concerning, because it will be far from easy.

One productive way for us to sharpen our thinking about the transformation is to study the World War II-era mobilization process. Then, the U.S. government, facing remarkably similar challenges to the ones we are likely to confront, successfully converted the U.S. economy from civilian to military production in a period of only three years.

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