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Most workers in the United States without an employment contract are considered to be employed "at will." This means either the employer or employee can end the relationship at any time for any reason, within other state and federal laws. Labor union employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement have some legal protections against employer actions such as wrongful termination.
At-will Employees and Union Employees
The concept of "at will employment" first appeared in a 1877 legal document, "Master and Servant," by Horace C. Wood. The doctrine is intended to comply with the 13th Amendment's prohibition against involuntary servitude. However, labor union employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement usually are protected by a clause stating their employment may only be terminated for "just cause."
Filing a Grievance
Union employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement usually can't be fired without "just cause." Those who believe they were fired without a good reason can ask their labor union to file a formal grievance against the employer. Then the union must investigate and decide whether the case has enough merit to pursue a grievance or arbitration. If a case involves a violation of law or public policy such as racial or sexual discrimination, it could end up in court.
Requirements to File a Grievance
A union employee wishing to file a grievance regarding wrongful termination must be "in good standing" and file according to the contract requirements. If the employer does not settle the claim it can be referred to a labor relations specialist or outside arbitrator whose decision is final. However, even union employees should consult an employment attorney to fully assess the situation.
Federal Prohibitions Against Wrongful Termination
Besides the protection provided by collective bargaining, union employees as well as all other employees are protected from wrongful termination by federal law in many situations. Beginning with the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII), the federal government prohibits terminating employment based on religion, race, age, sex or national origin.