Will the next big worker protection bill — against unfair firing — pass in Philly?

A new Council bill, introduced by Councilwoman Parker, seeks to provide job security for workers by defining what a fireable offense is. It’s called “just-cause” legislation.

(Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Media Network, File)

(Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Media Network, File)

This article originally appeared on Philly.com.

In the last 10 months, seven parking lot attendants from two companies say they were fired after speaking out about working conditions and trying to organize a union at their workplace.

At a City Council hearing last month, Mike Hardaway said he was fired after speaking at a rally for raising parking workers’ wages.

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“I feel like I was targeted for speaking up,” said Hardaway, who used to work for Towne Park at the Philadelphia 201 Hotel in Center City.

A new Council bill, introduced by Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, seeks to provide more job security for these workers by defining what a fireable offense is. It’s called “just-cause” legislation — meaning a worker can only be fired if an employer can prove an employee is not doing his or her job or is somehow hurting the business — and it’s on the vanguard of worker-protection laws being considered around the country.

In February, New York City Councilman Brad Lander introduced a just-cause bill for the city’s fast-food workers, thought to be the first of its kind in the United States. The fast-food workers are backed by SEIU 32BJ, the union that’s behind the parking lot workers in Philadelphia.

It follows several largely successful national movements to legislate protection for low-wage workers: A $15 minimum wage, rights for domestic workers, and predictable schedules, known as the fight for a “Fair Workweek.” (Philadelphia passed a Fair Workweek law in December and is currently considering a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It does not have the power to raise the minimum wage because of state law.)

Many of these are rights that a union would negotiate in a contract — especially “just cause,” which is standard in collective bargaining agreements — but advocates contend that labor laws that favor employers, a pro-business National Labor Relations Board, and a conservative Supreme Court have made it difficult for workers to join a union. Certain industries where there’s lots of turnover, like fast-food and retail, are also difficult to organize. So, cities such as New York, Seattle, and Philadelphia have turned to laws in place of unions.

To those who have never been covered by a collective bargaining agreement, just-cause legislation might sound far-fetched. That’s because, for more than 100 years, the U.S. has followed the rule of “at-will employment” — an employer can fire anyone at any time for any reason or no reason at all. The rule, labor lawyer Moshe Marvit writes, has been “treated as a fundamental feature of American culture and the economy.” There are exceptions protected by law — employers cannot, for example, fire someone because of their race or sex — but workers have the burden of proving the employer fired them for that reason.

Just-cause legislation is not without controversy:

  • Businesses say just cause is an example of government meddling and could ultimately drive jobs out of the city. Those arguments evoke comments by Rob Wonderling, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, about Fair Workweek legislation, when he said last year that he was seeing “a very interesting pattern emerging in the city of Philadelphia” in which Council was making city government act as a human resources department for local companies.
  • Business groups accuse unions of pushing these laws in order to increase “their dues-paying membership and their political agenda,” as an executive from the International Franchise Association told the New York Times.
  • Opponents argue that just cause protects incompetent, lazy, or, worse, abusive or dangerous workers.
  • Some national labor groups have yet to take a public stance on just cause, likely, experts say, because it removes a selling point for unionization. Five national labor groups, including the Service Employees International Union, the parent group for 32BJ, declined comment or wouldn’t take a position when contacted by Bloomberg Law about New York’s just-cause legislation. (It’s not uncommon for union locals to veer from their parent organizations, as unions generally follow rules of autonomy.)

Philadelphia’s just-cause bill, which a representative from Parker’s office said was modeled closely after New York’s legislation, was introduced in tandem with a bill that requires parking lot operators to have a certain level of staffing at all times.

The Philadelphia Parking Association, which represents parking giants such as Parkway Corp., said it was still reviewing the bills but has “strong concerns” that it has shared with Parker.

“Our hope is to reach a compromise that respects our workforce while at the same time protects the future viability of parking in Center City, which has lost an average of 1,500 to 3,000 spaces annually over the last several years,” the association said through a spokesperson.

City Council is to host a hearing on the parking bills Monday.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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