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Court Really Does a Job on Worker Security

October 06, 2000|PATT MORRISON

Keep your briefcase packed.

Don't glue your kid's picture up over your desk; use thumbtacks--they're easier to remove.

And maybe you should rethink that phrase "my work space."

In short, don't get comfortable.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday gave bosses the length and breadth of California the green light to deal out the pink slips--to rid themselves of nonunion employees for almost any reason.

Doing a good job is no protection. Longevity is no help. Almost any reason is sufficient reason.

It's been more than 10 years since the same court--that is, the same high-backed chairs occupied by different justices--declared that a worker couldn't be summarily dumped if the boss had given him or her reason to believe that doing a good job on the job meant keeping the job.

That was the labor version of putting 75 cents in the Coke machine and expecting to get a Coke in return. You keep doing a good job, you keep your job.

With the court's Thursday decision, that vending machine now looks more like a slot machine. You put in your six bits, and maybe you get a Coke and maybe you don't--and if you don't, well, where is it written that you will get a Coke every time you put in 75 cents?

And who says you have a right to drink Coke, anyway?

As the court put it, "Absent other evidence of the employer's intent, longevity, raises and promotions are their own rewards for the employee's continuing valued service; they do not, in and of themselves, additionally constitute a contractual guarantee of future employment security."

Job freedom at its freest. You're free to quit, and we're free to get rid of you.

Talk about swords into plowshares: It's a whole new use for the military phrase, "Fire at will."


The same day the court made its ruling, farm workers, carpenters and janitors drove or flew to Stockton from across California to rally outside a hearing by the Industrial Welfare Commission, which was inside considering a hike in the minimum wage. A raise of a dollar was on the table. The laborers wanted $2.25.

At the same time, staffers at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and at its hugely busy trauma unit absented themselves from work in the fourth day of rolling walkouts by Los Angeles County workers. MTA drivers are still not back to work, and by Thanksgiving, the teachers of L.A. Unified may be giving students some extra vacation if they, too, go on strike. In what is incessantly called the "longest period of peacetime prosperity" in U.S. history, why is anyone surprised that workers are trying to get a better seat on the gravy train?

Napoleon believed that giving a man a medal made him happier than giving him a fortune.

That theory has failed to impress its modern beneficiaries. Some companies tried "promoting" workers to manager--promoting almost every worker to manager, from the French fry lady to the janitor.

Firms like Albertson's, Rite Aid, Taco Bell, Mervyn's and Robinsons-May have been sued for this. What happened to low-level managers at Sport Chalet was characteristic: Their impressive titles, they said, were just a dodge for the company to avoid paying overtime. As newly minted managers, they said, they had a lot more work to do (very little of it managing anything except brooms and boxes) and almost no money to show for it--money that would have been coming their way in overtime if they were not managers.

Maybe those "managers" were being hasty. They should remember that only upper management somehow manages to fail upward. Only upper management crochets golden parachutes for themselves, whether their companies prosper or flounder.

Last year, three of the highest-paid CEOs in Southern California left their jobs with more than $140 million among them. And this after "resigning," either under pressure or because their jobs were eliminated.


It's my favorite law, the one that always gets passed no matter what--the law of unintended consequences.

The court's decision exempts union workers and those who have explicit contracts. Upshot: This could generate more unions and more contracts. Unionized dental hygienists and mechanics. Plumber's assistants with contracts. Do the Seven Dwarves belong to the United Mine Workers? Probably not. At least Sneezy is protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. But I hear there were originally Eight Dwarves, and right in the middle of a heigh-ho, Brawny got the heave-ho.


Patt Morrison's column appears Fridays. Her e-mail address is

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