Teaching Anti-Labor Lessons

I’m probably as guilty as anyone of criticizing millennials. In fairness though, I hope that all of us who are for example, past the age of “Generation X” understand that the refrain “kids these days” is a perpetual one. And if we are unhappy with what the kids are doing, we need look no farther than the lessons we teach them. Apparently, some want to be sure that we teach millennials that workplace protest is nothing more than a lack of  exhibition of  emotional intelligence  and “entitlement” . In this case however, the only sense of “entitlement” that I can see is an arrogant assertion of the rights of employers to break, or at least “bend” the law.

In this instance, a group of interns chafed at what they perceived as an unnecessary and unevenly enforced work rule. In the end, it turns out that their perception regarding enforcement was inaccurate, but then again, they were only responding to what was communicated to them. However, acting on the belief that as a group they should be able to voice their concerns they circulated a petition criticizing the dress code and asking for a revision.

They were then summarily called to a meeting and fired. As injustices go, this is not quite at the level of Matewan, but still, there are some damages here. A group of college students were deprived of an opportunity that has the potential to significantly influence their life time earnings.

As students at their respective Universities, they had some significant rights to free speech and due process and one suspects that they had become accustomed to this status. Of course, as employees, “volunteers” or “contractors”, or whatever their legal status was, they had no First Amendment rights in the workplace and in most instances, no due process rights. More’s the tragedy here with the operative default standard in American Labor Law being “employment at will”. But I’ll address that issue on another occasion.

However, if they were in fact W-2 employees, regardless of whether they were temporary or permanent, if they were not managers, their actions might actually have been protected as  concerted activity    under NLRA. Because they acted together to address a working condition and to improve the conditions of their employment, they were engaging in concerted action. Of course, whether or not these interns were actually covered under NLRA is questionable. In all likelihood, management had the legal right to summarily dismiss a group of interns. But that doesn’t in my view get management, or the author of this article off the hook. Management took this opportunity to make sure it taught the lesson and reinforced it with fear: do not organize in your workplace. And there were certainly a lot of other options available to management other than firing their interns en masse.

These kinds of articles, notably, often penned by HR managers and others who have power to hire and fire in the corporate world have become somewhat ubiquituous. People are routinely reminded to watch what they say over social media, keep their resumes squeaky clean, exhibit loyalty to their company, not to present themselves as controversial, in a corporate culture where most corporations bend over backwards not to exhibit loyalty to their employees. The only entitlement I see in this case is that of corporate managers.

If students on campuses these days are getting some things wrong, I think they are also getting some things right. Their willingness to speak out is one of those things they get right. Perhaps the nation’s business departments might start including some material on worker’s rights under NLRA and other similar statutes to students who hope to become future HR managers.

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