You know those gangster movies where some poor sap is getting worked over by pug-ugly thugs and then one of them says, “Hey, Louie, if you just tell us what we want to hear, we’ll let you go,” and the poor soul, stuck between a rock and a hard place – perhaps literally – gives up the information, and it’s immediately apparent that the goons are going to terminate the guy anyway. Then he protests, “But you promised you’d let me go,” and the main thug looks him directly in the eye and replies, “We lied, Louie.”
And you think, “Ooooh! What a bunch of no-good weasels! I hope you get yours! And soon!”
Well, the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that it’s perfectly legal for employers to treat employees the same way.
Employers can lie to their workers, and terminate them based on that lie.
Not terminate as in “kill”, of course, but as in terminate their jobs. Which, carrying the analogy just a lbit further, is essentially cutting off the workers’ life-line.
In a case that was decided this past April, but has its roots beginning in 2002, E.I. du Pont de Nemours announced that it planned to spin off some of its operations into a wholly owned separate subsidiary, DTI. Most of the Unit employees were covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which gave them the right to transfer to other DuPont jobs rather than move to the new subsidiary. If they moved to DTI, though, they’d be covered by an identical CBA, receiving the same pay and benefits. Many of the workers were skeptical, thinking DuPont would sell DTI and then that contract guarantee would be null and void. DuPont, however, had a big stake in having the employees transfer to DTI, so as to avoid great costs training new DTI employees, along with other significant re-tooling expenses.
So, to get the employees to tell them “what they wanted to hear” –namely, that they would move to DTI, DuPont did what any self-respecting boss – mob boss, that is – would do: they lied. DuPont assured its workers that it would keep, not sell, DTI, even though it was already negotiating on such a sale with Koch Industries! The rest is sadly predictable: most of the naïve employees moved to DTI, and barely more than two months later, DuPont announced it was negotiating with Koch, and a year later the deal was done.
Whereupon – surprise! – Koch reduced the employees’ compensation and retirement benefits.
The above summation, by the way, with the exception of the “mob” comparisons – comes straight out of Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht’s decision, so the fact that DuPont purposely lied to its employees is not in dispute.
The reason it was before Judge Hecht was because, as you might suspect, a lot of the employees were pretty ticked off about being duped, and having their livelihoods adversely impacted. Roughly 60 of them joined a lawsuit, demanding more than $23 million in damages.
Judge Hecht ruled that they didn’t have a case because they were “at-will” employees. “At will” means you can be fired for good cause. Or bad cause. Or no cause. You can be fired because the boss woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Or he woke up in the wrong bed altogether, and you know about it. And since these employees could be fired for any reason, uh, there’s a jump in logic here that eludes me, but Judge Hecht said it means the company could lie to them and suffer no repercussions.
But, you close readers protest, these were union workers, so not at-will. But you’re not reading closely enough, because these were union workers in Texas. Their CBA had a provision that it could be terminated with 60 days’ notice, so, the judge ruled, that still qualified them as “at-will.”
Perhaps the most withering sentence in Judge Hecht’s decision was that the employees could not sue DuPont for fraud “based on illusory promises of continued at-will employment.” In other words, if you were stupid enough to believe DuPont’s assurances, that’s on you.
Twenty-four states, including Texas, have “Right-to-Work” laws, but Texas, always on the “frontier” of justice, may be the first to officially declare itself a “Right-to-Lie” state.