Let’s consider some facts and myths related to Americans being fired. We’re not talking about people who are laid off due to cutbacks, restructuring or downsizing, and we’re not talking about people who are accommodated or nudged out?allowed to resign in lieu of being terminated, or persuaded to take early retirement. We’re talking specifically about people who are fired?..given the axe?.given the old heave-ho?.shit-canned.
First, let’s consider the facts.
FACT: Only a tiny percentage of workers actually get fired for job performance. That’s because we have 90-day probationary periods (2-3 years in the case of public school teachers) for new hires, and because most people are, in fact, pretty decent workers. There’s simply no reason to fire them. Are some workers better than others? Of course they are. But, analogously, just because some drivers happen to be better than others doesn’t mean we strip the less talented ones of their driver’s license. We have two categories of driver: qualified and unqualified. There’s no “more qualified” category.
FACT: Even demonstrably substandard workers are rarely fired. They remain on the payroll for four reasons: (1) confidence in additional training always runs high; (2) firing people is confrontational, something that managers tend to avoid; (3) managers tell themselves that the replacement may be no better than the guy they intend to fire (so why not avoid the hassle and just keep him); and (4) managers know that the good employees will always carry the bad ones. It’s the Law of the Workplace.
FACT: Chronic absenteeism is far and away the number one reason for terminations. Which is to say that most people, ironically, get fired for indicating that they don’t want to be there in the first place. Those other reasons for being fired?incompetence, lying, theft, insubordination, sleeping on the job, etc.?are negligible compared to absenteeism. While an inefficient employee can be finessed, a guy who fails to show up is going to create a problem. Also, attendance discharges tend to hold up in arbitration because they’re so easily documented. It’s simple arithmetic, laid out in black and white.
Now let’s look at the myths.
MYTH: It’s almost impossible to fire a union member. That charge is not only false, it’s silly, insulting and annoying as hell. It’s a smear invented by anti-labor forces to make unions look bad. During my time as president, I probably saw two dozen people get fired. While the majority were fired for absenteeism?and the overwhelming majority of those absences were traceable to substance abuse (the hourly weren’t offered the same generous rehab options that salaried workers were)?I also saw people get clobbered for job performance and safety violations. There weren’t many, but there were some.
MYTH: Union workers are lazier, more cantankerous and generally less efficient than non-union workers. Common sense alone should tell us that this is absurd. All we have to do is ask the question: Which jobs in a community are going to attract the higher caliber employee?union jobs in clean, well-lighted facilities, with superior wages, benefits, and working conditions? Or non-union jobs in murky, dungeon-like facilities, with lower pay, poorer benefits, and inferior, often unsafe, working conditions?
The bottom line is that union jobs don’t keep workers from being fired; they keep them from being poor. They provide better wages and benefits, a safer work environment, and the guarantee of working with dignity. All of which are anathema to corporate America.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org