Civil rights put on back burner when in workplace


Is it legal to fire an employee for their refusal to take a political bumper sticker off their car? May an employee refuse to take a random drug test presented without probable cause? And how much protection do employees really get from the Constitution?

These are just few of many issues discussed yesterday at the Constitution Day Event, "Know Your Rights in the Workplace," at the Labor Education Center on Cook campus.

"The University is trying to focus our attention on the Constitution of the United States, a document that even today stands almost unique among the nations of the world in terms of what it symbolizes, how it was created and what it gives to us," said Professor Sue Schurman, Dean of the University College Community.

Speakers at the event, which was sponsored by the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department and the University College Community, discussed the lack of individual rights in American workplaces.

"They used to say that ... when you pull into the parking lot at your place of employment, take your copy of the Constitution and put it in the glove box of your car, because once you enter the door of that workplace, it does not apply," Schurman said.

Jeremy Gruber, Attorney at Law for the National Work rights Institute said many people are surprised to learn they do not have the rights they would expect in the workplace.

He said in a private sector workplace, for example, the rights to privacy, due process, freedom of speech and freedom of association don't exist for workers who aren't in worker's unions or who don't have employment contracts, which Gruber said is most American workers.

Gruber said when people talk about these individual rights, they don't generally talk about them as constitutional rights, because they should, in theory, transcend the Constitution.

"They form the bedrock of what we believe is our free society," Gruber said. "We talk about these rights as if they're everywhere, but they're not."

Gruber said the problem stems from the timing of the Constitution's creation in 1787, and the bill of rights' addition in 1791.

After being subjected to the tyranny of their mother nation, Gruber said, American forefathers devised a system to make sure there were checks and balances against the government. But this was long before the height of industrialization, and employers worked with a small, familiar group of employees, very different from how businesses and corporations are run today.

Gruber said this problem is compounded by a backlash against labor unions during the 19th century, and courts during the era were highly hostile to labor rights. At that time, the courts devised a system called At Will Employment, which says an employer may fire an employee whenever they want for whatever reason.

Gruber said that despite laws and regulations that have come to pass since that time, this system still exists for most workers today.

The reason, he said, is the belief that a free market economy is inconsistent with human rights, a concept that Gruber said many people still carry with them. Gruber disagrees with this concept, saying there is absolutely nothing inconsistent with human rights and a free market.

"Somehow when it comes to human rights and civil rights, people are still afraid," Gruber said. "Many of the rights that we hold dear as Americans have no place in the American workplace."

Gruber said it is important for Americans to educate themselves about their constitutional rights at work, since so many people are shocked to learn first hand that their rights don't exist in a private workplace.

"Most Americans don't realize that they have no rights until their rights have been violated," he said.

He said America and its legislators also need to finish the work on the Constitution and the protection of workers' rights.

In a public sector, however, Professor Lisa Schur of the LSER Department said workers have more rules to protect them. Schur said individuals employed in a public sector are more commonly employed by the government.

As for private sector workplace employees, she said laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex.

"If you fall into one of those exceptions, you cannot be fired or denied employment," Schur said. "The bottom line is, unless you fall into one of those protected categories ... there is absolutely nothing you can do."


Rachel Gillett

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