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To many local activists, workers and tenants movements are deeply intertwined.

May 2, 2024

‘You Can’t Boot Me Without Cause’: Local Organizers Push for Just Cause, Good Cause Legislation

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Ithaca workers and tenants organizations are working to draft and ultimately pass two pieces of legislation through the Common Council — one addressing conditions for the firing of workers and another addressing conditions for the evicting of tenants.

On March 16, the Ithaca Just Cause Coalition — a collection of organizations including the Ithaca Tenants Union — hosted a public meeting with a panel of experts on potential legislation regulating workplace disciplinary policies and the firing of workers. 

The proposal, which was written by the coalition, would require that all terminations, suspensions and cuts of more than 15 percent of a worker’s hours have a “just cause” — either their inadequate performance or the employer’s “bona fide” financial hardship. 

All employers would be required to have a system of progressive discipline, a series of “graduated responses” to an employee’s “failure to satisfactorily perform such employee’s job duties,” according to the draft legislation. Workers may be fired without notice for only “egregious misconduct,” which the legislation describes as “workplace conduct that is so outrageous, dangerous or illegal that an employer cannot reasonably expect to correct it through progressive discipline​​.”

Currently, all states excluding Montana allow “at will” employment, a system in which employers can fire an employee at any time for any reason, excluding reasons that constitute discrimination, retaliation or refusal to partake in illegal activities. The United States is one of few countries around the world with this system.

Because of this, Ian Greer M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’05, director of the ILR co-lab, believes that having a just cause, rather than an at-will employment system, is necessary.

“[Just cause] is going to bring Ithaca in line with the rest of the world, because the U.S. is pretty unique in having at-will employment,” Greer said. 

The draft legislation allows employers to lay off employees for a “bona fide economic reason” — defined in the draft legislation to mean either the closure of the establishment, decline in revenue over “no less than a quarter” or a forecasted 75 percent or larger decline in revenues. 

The draft legislation also includes that the firing of employees related to economic issues or a non-egregious performance issue would require a written notice issued at least 30 days in advance, including any steps that the employee could take to avoid termination. Should an Ithaca employer terminate employees for reasons that are not in line with these guidelines, they may face action from the city attorney.

Just Cause legislation would also create a new Worker’s Rights Commission, appointed by the Common Council, that would then appoint hearing officers who would “hear and adjudicate complaints” from workers claiming that their employer violated Just Cause labor laws. The legislation would also compensate workers whose employers are found in violation of these guidelines.

Jorge Defendini ’22, an active member of the Just Cause Coalition and ITU, said the Just Cause Coalition is currently working to push the Ithaca Common Council to adopt their draft proposal.

“We have a draft of the legislation that we’ve proposed, and the Common Council is convening a working group right now, and they’re assessing how they can pass Just Cause,” Defendini said. “They’re looking at our legislation to see what can be incorporated. We’re pressing upon them to just use the legislation as is.” 

Local advocacy for Just Cause legislation closely parallels the tenants union’s advocacy for Good Cause Eviction legislation. 

Pete Meyers, founder of Tompkins County Workers Center, explained the importance of this work being conducted in parallel.

“Keeping people in their jobs is a really important part of keeping people in their homes, so it made sense to us to reach out to the tenants union.” Meyers said. 

Good Cause Eviction seeks to protect tenants from unreasonable rent increases and retaliatory or discriminatory evictions through allowing tenants to challenge evictions for “arbitrary” causes. Since 2019, versions of the law have been implemented in multiple states — such as California, Oregon and Washington — and more than 20 cities. 

Good Cause Eviction protections were introduced to the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee in 2021, but the law was put on indefinite hold by the City due to concerns that it would invite scrutiny and lawsuits from the state. 

However, in March, the movement gained traction once again as the state budget was being negotiated, as lawmakers debated the inclusion of Good Cause provisions. 

On April 20, the New York state senate passed the Good Cause Eviction Protections in the budget but limited its scope to New York City and other cities that choose to opt-in. According to Defendini local organizers are also advocating for Ithaca to opt-in to the statewide Good Cause law.

The state bill also outlined several exemptions to the housing covered by the legislation by excluding various housing accommodations such as units with a monthly rent greater than 245 percent of the fair market rent, units owned by landlords who own 10 units or less, owner-occupied buildings that contain 10 units or less, units subject to rent regulation and units required to be affordable.

Kayla Lane, a member of the Landlords Associations of Tompkins County board of directors, criticized the passage of the legislation because she was concerned about landlords’ inability to cease agreements with tenants.

“The concern we have, as housing providers, with Good Cause eviction protections is that it forces one party of the lease into agreeing to rent to an individual into perpetuity. From a general standpoint, that’s incredibly concerning.” Lane wrote to The Sun.  

Lane further elaborated that it is “unclear” how Good Cause eviction protections would increase housing affordability, citing rent caps as a mechanism that she said would inflate rent levels.

“Property owners are beginning to feel nervous that they will not be able to reasonably increase rents each year based on their building’s expenses and therefore will feel obligated to increase rent the max[imum] amount allowed,” Lane wrote. “Many tenants don’t see more than a one to three percent increase each year, and now that will double, possibly even triple with Good Cause Eviction.” 

Genevieve Rand, a founding member of ITU and the statewide organizer for housing in the Citizen Action of New York, expressed her bittersweet sentiment on the passed state legislation. 

“Hochul let the Real Estate Board of New York write drafts of the legislation and passed a version that leaves out over 3 million tenants, including hundreds of thousands in New York City. It’s the weakest Good Cause law in the US,” Rand wrote. “That being said — we will pass and improve it in Ithaca. For years, local legislators who stand in the way of tenant rights have been voted out and replaced by tenants. It’s a supermajority tenant city, and I’m very confident the council will reflect that.” 

The passage of Good Cause legislation at the state level and the continued advocacy for both the Just Cause and Good Cause legislation in the City signals a larger trend in Ithaca and beyond on the collaborative efforts between the labor and tenants movements.  

Rand stressed the importance in building countervailing power among the working class through coalition building between tenants and labor. 

“In Ithaca, the ITU sits on the Just Cause Employment Coalition. At the state level, major unions like 1199 FIU [and] the Carpenters union … are part of campaigning for the Good Cause Eviction Bill,” Rand said. “There’s a really simple reason for that, which is that tenants are workers, and we tend to struggle for power and dignity at our jobs just as much as we do at our homes.” 

“So, in order to protect our income and also to protect how we spend that income on our apartment, we’re organizing in both places to make it so that those basic needs can’t be taken away from us without proof that we broke some law.”

Defendini further explained the connection between the two movements.

“It’s a similar concept. A friend of mine came up with a really good slogan — ‘in my house or on the job, you can’t boot me without cause.’”