At the end of every episode of “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump’s reality TV show, he would utter his signature catchphrase “You’re Fired!” Yet, it came as no surprise that Trump, when speaking recently in Michigan, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently went on strike, didn’t dare mention anyone being fired for refusing to work.
UAW members voted about 97 percent in favor of going on strike. The UAW is seeking “at least a 40% wage increase over four years in a new contract; an end to two-tier wage systems in which new hires are paid significantly less for doing the same work; an increase to benefits for retirees and return of a defined pension instead of a 401k; reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustment raises; a 32-hour working week; job security protections; and protections for workers affected by plant closures.” The strike affects about 150,000 auto workers at the big three automakers, which have never experienced a strike simultaneously.
The other Republican presidential candidates have not hesitated to criticize the UAW. South Carolina senator Tim Scott, for example, said in a statement: “The UAW is one of the most corrupt and scandal-plagued unions in America. They are showing their true colors once again and autoworkers and taxpayers will be left holding the bag together. They want to threaten me and shut me up.”
As the strike by the UAW was beginning, another strike was ending. On May 2, the Writers Guild of America, which represents screen and television writers, went on strike, effectively halting film and television production. A tentative agreement was reached on September 24.
As reported by CNBC, according to the Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker — “a comprehensive database of strike and labor protest activity across the United States in order to better inform and support labor movement activists, policymakers, and scholars” — “some 362,000 workers have gone on strike so far in 2023, compared with 36,600 over the same period two years ago.” Most of the work stoppages occurred in the “accommodation and food services” sector, and increased pay was by far the most common reason for the strikes.
And it’s not just strikes in the United States that are increasing.
In Nigeria, unions representing the country’s government workers announced they were going on strike to demand pay raises and protest the austerity measures of the nation’s newly elected government. This was the third strike in less than two months for the Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress, which together represent hundreds of thousands of government workers.
I am not familiar with labor law in other countries, but in the United States, companies generally can’t fire striking workers. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB):
You cannot be fired for participating in a protected strike or picketing, depending on the purposes and means of the strike action.
Under federal law, you cannot be fired for participating in a protected strike or picketing against your employer. There are limitations and qualifications on the exercise of that right. Most strikes are protected, but certain kinds of strikes are not protected, depending on the object or purpose of the strike, on its timing, or on the conduct of the strikers. You can be lawfully fired for participating in an unprotected strike.
When a protected strike ends, you are entitled to return to work. If the reason for the strike was, in whole or in part, to protest one or more unfair labor practices, strikers must be immediately reinstated. If the strike was over economic issues, you are likewise entitled to immediate reinstatement except that if your employer hired permanent replacements, returning strikers are placed on a preferential hiring list. Your right to reinstatement may be lost if you have engaged in violence or other serious misconduct in connection with your strike or picketing activities.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, was passed in 1935. It promotes collective bargaining between companies and unions and guarantees the right of an employee to join a labor union and to strike.
Would collective bargaining, unions, and strikes exist in a free society? Certainly. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things, but in a free society, everything about them would be voluntary, peaceful, and noncoercive. Collective bargaining would not be mandated by the government. Unions would not be privileged by the government. No one would be forced to join a union or pay union dues without joining, and companies could prohibit their employees from forming or joining a union. Unions would not be allowed to engage in violence. And most importantly, striking workers could be fired.
In a free society, anyone who had a job but refused to work could be fired whether he claimed to be out on strike or not. This, however, does not mean, of course, that all companies would immediately fire any employee who refused to come to work. A company might choose to meet the demands of striking workers if it calculated that the cost of training new workers to replace the striking workers was higher than the cost of giving in to the striking workers’ demands.
In a free society, there might be unions, collective bargaining, and strikes, but there would be no NLRA, no NLRB, or Department of Labor.
And because no one has the right to get or keep any particular job in a free society, employers would have the right to fire employees not just for going out on strike but for any reason, even without “cause.” Again, this does not mean that employers would go on a firing spree. It just means that the right of an employer to fire an employee — barring some type of employment contract or agreement — would be absolute.