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Could New York City’s New Bill Hurt Unions?

In March, New York City Councilman Brian Lander introduced a bill that could change the union gameplan in one of the world’s biggest cities.  The bill Lander proposed would put an end to at-will employment in the fast food industry in NYC and require that all terminations be only for just cause.  The bill defines “just cause” for termination as an “employee’s failure to satisfactorily perform job duties or misconduct that is demonstrably and materially harmful.”  If the bill is enacted, fast food restaurants will not be able to fire employees other than for just cause.

NYC fast food restaurants currently operate as at-will employers.  An at-will employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal reason.  And of course, an employee can always leave a job for any reason at any time.  The bill would help the fast food workers have more job protection, as they would not have to worry about being let go without good reason.

But New York is a huge union town.  If this bill is enacted, however, it might not be as big for city fast food workers.  Unions usually draw workers by saying that they offer good wages and a stable job environment.  Recently New York State raised the minimum wage from $13 an hour to $15 an hour, which is about a 15% increase.  If this bill gets enacted, the fast food workers would now also be able to have job protection without having to pay union dues.  The likely result is that there would be less of a reason to join a union.  Unions would have to come up with more creative ways to draw in New York City’s fast food workers.

If New York City enacts this bill, cities such as Austin and Seattle have said they might consider similar legislation. Unions were first created in order to help the workers with work related difficulties such as low pay, unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, long hours, and firings for no good cause.  They were necessary because workers had almost no power when it came to dealing with their employers.  But for the last half a century, states and the federal government have enacted various employment laws to ensure that workers would have job protection regardless of whether a union is in the picture or not.  That is one of the reasons unions now represent only a little over 6% of the U.S. private sector workforce.  New York may have just come up with another way to weaken worker interest in unions.

Kollman & Saucier acknowledges and appreciates the significant work that student intern Leo Conti put into preparing this blog post.

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