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Nathan Newman on September 12, 2008 - 6:30am
This November Coloradans will have a chance to vote on a simple proposition: Should employers have to provide a legitimate reason before they fire an employee?
Virtually all states already prohibit firings on the basis of race, gender, age or religion and many other criteria; Colorado's Ballot Amendment 55 would merely boil employer responsibility down to a simple requirement that they provide a "just cause" reason for terminating any employee. Of course, employers should be able to fire an employee for incompetence, substandard performance, violations of written employment policies, insubordination or other forms of willful misconduct -- and the amendment makes clear that these will still be appropriate grounds for terminating an employee.
The rightwing business lobby is spending quite a bit to defeat the ballot amendment, backed by editorials like this one in the Denver Post, which compares the proposal to turning Colorado into "France." The hint of truth there is that France, along with every other industrialized country in the world already provides "just cause" protections for its employees. But then so do almost all of our own country's government and union employers. And most states have more limited versions of job protection for non-union private employees as well.
The Montana Precedent: But why even talk about France when Colorado's neighbor to the north, Montana, has had a statute offering just cause protection for employees since 1987? A new report by the American Constitution Society (ACS) asks the question, "Did the Big Sky Fall?" when Montana enacted just cause? And the answer is not only didn't Montana suffer economically, but it's unemployment rate fell from nearly 8% in 1987 down to 3.2% by December 2007.
Now, no one is arguing that the Montana just cause provision led to this fall in unemployment, since Montana's decline in unemployment paralleled states like Idaho and Wyoming. But that's the point -- labor protections aren't the determinants of employment levels, despite repeated, overheated claims by the rightwing business lobbies that policies like the minimum wage or just cause spell economic doom. As ACS writes in their conclusion, "Employers do not put themselves at a competitive disadvantage by legislation that protects their employees from arbitrary and unfair discharge decisions."
What just cause does do is stop bad managers from making arbitrary and biased firing decisions -- and both workers and employers benefit when managers are held accountable for explaining the reasons for termination decisions. France and Montana aren't usually considered to have much in common, but other states like Colorado will only benefit from sharing with them just cause protections for employees.