Just like the Tea Party on the other side, the Occupy Wall Street movement is on the brink of having real political power. Everyone wants to know -- what do they want? What changes will they ask for? With unemployment still hovering at 9% and people scared they will lose their jobs for blinking wrong, America needs real changes to its employment laws. When I wrote my article, 10 Workplace Rights You Think You Have -- But Don't, many commenters were angry -- with me. They thought I must be wrong. I wasn't.
It's time workers started paying attention to the laws that protect them, and the laws that ought to. As a lawyer who has practiced employee-side employment law for over 25 years and who has seen how bad law can devastate hard-working Americans, here are some changes I'd suggest if I were advising the Occupy Wall Street movement.
1. Fair Pay: No CEO or executive of any publicly-traded company should have a compensation package that exceeds 50 times what their median employees make, or 100 times what their lowest-paid employees make, whichever is less. Imagine how much more fair employee pay packages will be when executive compensation is tied to their employees' pay. Right now CEO pay is about 343 times what the average worker makes.
2. Just Cause: Most Americans still believe their employer should have to have a reason to fire them. They don't. The at-will doctrine says you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. It exists everywhere but Montana. It's time for a change. Employers should only be able to terminate employees if they have cause: performance problems, not following workplace rules, or legitimate layoffs/restructuring. Employers should have to follow their own policies in firing employees. Montana survived when it passed a "just cause" law and America will too. In fact, Montana's unemployment rate is well below the national average.
3. Corporations Aren't People: Corporations should not have constitutional protections. While the fiction that corporations are "people" makes some sense for many laws, it's being abused. Corporations should not have the right to make unlimited campaign contributions under the guise of "free speech." It skews the system. Actual people (you know, living, breathing human beings) don't have the kind of money Wall Street does to throw around. Corporations aren't people. People are people. Know the difference. Fairness is good for everyone.
4. Free Speech: While corporations are running around flinging briefcases full of cash at our elected officials claiming free speech, you don't have any free speech rights when it comes to work. Right now, if you gripe about your employer on Facebook, you can be fired (with limited exceptions). You can also be fired for your political opinions, as many people find out around election time. What you say and which candidates you support on your own time should be your business.
5. Privacy: In these days of electronics, big employer is watching everywhere. It's time to get back our right to personal privacy. While your employer should be able to read the emails you send from your workplace email, they shouldn't ever be allowed to access your private email. Many people check their email and text messages from work. What they don't know is that their employer may be monitoring what they are reading. If companies don't want employees to use work computers to read personal emails or text messages, they should ban it entirely. But they should have no more right to read your emails or text messages than they should have the right to open your mailbox at home. While we're at it, employers should not be allowed to monitor your social networking and use it against you. We'd all howl if our employers hired a private investigator to follow us around, but the electronic age allows them to do just that from the comfort of their IT department. What you do on your own time, unless it's a crime for which you are convicted or a crime against your employer, should be none of your employer's business.
There are many more changes needed to our workplace laws. Americans should be entitled to take bathroom breaks (there's no federal law saying you're entitled to any breaks); should be able to work for any company they want to as long as they don't steal company trade secrets; should be able to choose whether or not to give up their right to a trial in workplace cases; and should be protected against workplace bullies. But we have to start somewhere. To the Occupy leaders: feel free to ask me anytime about more ways you can seek fairness for working people.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to accomplish real change in the way working Americans are treated. I hope it succeeds.
Donna Ballman is the award-winning author of The Writer's Guide to the Courtroom: Let's Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She's been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues is Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. To find out more about Donna, visit her on Red Room.
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