What is the difference between an at-will and a just cause employee?

If you work in the private sector and are not represented by a union, you are most likely an “at-will” employee.  This means that you can be fired from you job for good cause, bad cause , or no cause at all so long as the employer is not otherwise violating a federal or state law, i.e. an employer couldn’t fire you because of your race, creed, sex, religion or national origin, but you could be fired because your employer doesn’t like your favorite sports team (bad cause) or just because the employer “feels like it” (no cause).

If you are represented by a union or are a government employee, then you are most likely a just cause employee.  This means that the employer must have a legitimate business reason for taking an adverse employment action against you.  This protects union employees from arbitrary or unfair termination or other inappropriate workplace discipline.

What is Collective Bargaining?

Unions exist to ensure that workers are provided basic fundamental workplace rights, such as the right to a safe working environment, the right to just cause employment, and the right to be paid a living wage.  Unions ensure these rights through a process called collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining is the process by which the Union and the employer negotiate over the terms and conditions of employment for the  employees the Union represents.  This results in a collective bargaining agreement or “the contract.”  Although all contracts vary, they all have some common features, such as setting the wages for employees and establishing grievance procedures to settle disputes between the parties.

What is a grievance?

Simply put, a grievance is an allegation by one of the parties to the collective bargaining agreement that the other party has violated the agreement.  Often times a grievance involves an allegation that a Union member was not disciplined for just cause.  This means that either the Union does not believe that the member committed the offense they were disciplined for or that the discipline was excessive given the totality of the circumstances.

Most contracts attempt to resolve grievances at the lowest possible level.  Often times a grievance will be initiated with a Union member’s immediate supervisor.  If the grievance is not resolved at that level then the grievance progresses to a higher level of management.  Although contracts can vary on how many steps there are in the grievance procedure.  Most end with a process called arbitration.  At arbitration, a third party is called in to decide the merits of the grievance and determine what the appropriate action should be.  With few exceptions, the decision of an arbitrator is binding on all the parties and must be followed.

My boss wants to talk to me about an incident I was involved in. Can I have a Union representative come with me?

Yes!  Although your boss might not tell you, all employees that are represented by a union have a right to union representation during any meeting or interview that they reasonably believe could result in their discipline.  This important right, called the Weingarten right after the Supreme Court case that established it, can be evoked at any time during the meeting.  Once you request representation, the employer must wait for the Union representative to arrive before continuing the questioning.

When evoking my Weingarten right, can I choose who my Union representative is?

It depends. As a general rule you may choose the Union representative that you would like.  This means that if your company has several Union Stewards, you can choose the one that you feel most comfortable dealing with.  However, if the Union representative you choose is unavailable, or it would cause a long delay in the meeting to wait for your chosen Union representative to arrive, the company may deny your request for that specific representative and ask that you choose an available Union representative.