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Just Cause We Can: Ending At-Will Employment and Avoiding Preemption

By Nathaniel Kazlow

Unlike most European countries, the United States does not generally provide “just-cause” protections for its employees, meaning most workers are employed “at will” and may be terminated for any reason whatsoever. Although federal and state laws shield many workers from discriminatory and retaliatory firings, these protections are not enough. States and municipalities can and should legislate additional safeguards, especially in low-wage industries most affected by employee turnover.

This Note argues that federal labor law does not preempt state laws and city ordinances that provide just-cause protections to workers. The Note begins by reviewing at-will employment in the United States and Machinists preemption, a doctrine that precludes state and local regulation of those aspects of labor-management relations that Congress intended to be regulated by market forces. After analyzing the circuits’ differing applications of the Machinists preemption doctrine, this Note argues that just-cause laws are best understood as setting permissible, minimum labor standards rather than as impermissibly interfering in the collective-bargaining process. Under such an interpretation, it follows then, that state and local just-cause laws should not be preempted by the federal National Labor Relations Act. The Note concludes by providing recommendations to states and municipalities on how best to structure their just-cause legislation, leveraging lessons learned from recent and decades-old statutes and case law.

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