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Southern Hospitality: Life in a “Right-to-Work” State

 

[What follows is an essay written in response to Michael D. Yates’ call for essays on work. — Ed.]

My name is Jeremy Evanchesky. I’m originally from Central City, Pennsylvania and now live in Lakeland, Florida. I work as a teacher at the Homer K. Addair Career Academy. When I first came to the south, I fell in love with the beautiful palm trees, the kind and generous people, and the mild winters that didn’t cause my lips to chap and crack. Before coming, I checked into what kind of job opportunities there were, and I found that jobs generally paid the same and that the cost of living was the same. There was one difference that sold the deal for me: the unemployment rate in Florida was the lowest in the nation. After briefly considering a graduate program in Los Angeles, I decided to leave for Florida with my aunt.

The most widespread exception [to the employment-at-will doctrine] prevents
terminations for reasons that violate a State’s public policy. Another widely recognized exception prohibits terminations after an implied contract for employment has been established; such a contract can be created through employer representations of continued employment, in the form of either oral assurances or expectations created by employer handbooks, policies, or other written assurances. Finally, a minority of States has read an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing into the employment relationship. The good-faith covenant has been interpreted in different ways, from meaning that terminations must be for cause to meaning that terminations cannot be made in bad faith or with malice intended. Only six western States — Alaska, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming — recognize all three of the major exceptions. Three southern States — Florida, Georgia, and
Louisiana — and Rhode Island do not recognize any of the three major exceptions to employment at will.
(emphasis added and endnotes omitted, Charles J. Muhl,
“The Employment-at-Will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions,” Monthly Labor Review, January 2001)

There were a number of things that the statistics didn’t tell me. The first thing I noticed is how easy it is to fire somebody in a right-to-work state. On the first application I filled out, I noticed a clause saying I could be terminated at any time with or without cause. Basically, if you piss the boss off, you’re fired. A second cause for concern was that the threat of unionization to employers is nonexistent. Employers hold all the cards. Also a big shock was the cost of the “employer-provided” health insurance. My mother and father didn’t have to pay a dime for their insurance. My father is a coal miner and my mother a prison guard. My father had worked at United Mine Workers of America work sites and my mother is still in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union. It was a major adjustment for me to be in a place with no unions.

When I mentioned unionization at my work sites, people either ran from me or strongly urged me not to push the envelope. They claimed that we couldn’t unionize because if the boss heard us even mention unionization, we’d both be fired. I was shocked to find that the answers were consistent at every work site. Some workers supported the idea while others claimed it would do no good, arguing that if we did manage to win a union election the company would just shut down.

I’ve worked for some very large and profitable companies: Coca-Cola, JC Penney, and General Engines. All of these companies preached the anti-union doctrine. They tell you a bunch of the same things you can find in any manager’s anti-union handbook. JC Penney and General Engines will even tell you that their wages are competitive with union wages. General Engines didn’t pay a single employee the $17.50/hr that a unionized auto worker would have made, and JC Penny sure did not pay the same wages that a Teamster contract would have guaranteed. Coca-Cola did pay well; the benefits were better than you could get in the military and they were not expensive.

JC Penney took over a warehouse that was formerly run by Osco. All the “associates” who worked for Osco were allowed to “grandfather” their wages across when JC Penney took over. However, JC Penney cut the pay rate at every position for new associates. Associates must also pay $86 per week for health insurance. Most of the associates cannot afford the health insurance because the monthly contribution equates to a week of work for most of them. It’s hard to believe a company projected to make $19.15 billion in sales can’t pay for affordable health care. General Engines had affordable health care, but the wages were very low. Most of the people putting the decking on Eager Beaver trailers that General Engines makes were temporary employees making a meager $6 per hour. These almost impossibly low wages and benefits are coupled with a housing market that is now exploding and energy prices higher than we’ve ever seen, forcing people to make compromises even on their basic needs.

In spite of all the problems people in Florida face, often making choices between paying rent and buying groceries, they are friendly and much more tolerant of other cultures than people in the town in which I grew up. It’s hard for me to watch so many good people work themselves into the ground for companies that don’t even provide for their most basic needs. The worst part is, as bad as it is in America, it’s even worse in other countries.

Now, I’ve adjusted to the new way of life. I have a good job that is unionized. But I still encourage all who are unhappy with their work to organize. My hope is that one day everybody will be represented by a proactive union that is looking out for their best interests instead of just asking for their dues money. My new home is beautiful with its year-round warm climate and tropical plants, but it will not truly be a paradise until we eliminate the needless suffering and strife that I was once a part of.


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