Can your boss fire you for your political beliefs?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 1 2002 7:14 PM

Can Your Boss Fire You for Your Political Beliefs?

A cautionary Independence Day tale.

On Oct. 22, a sewing-machine operator named Michael Italie was fired by Goodwill Industries, the network of nonprofit groups best-known for collecting and selling used clothing and furniture in order to provide job training for the disabled. Among Goodwill's lesser-known functions is to supply low-cost contract labor to the federal government. Italie's job was to sew U.S. Navy jackets in Goodwill's Miami plant. The factory had been humming since Sept. 11; to meet the surging demand for American flags, it had gone on a 24-hour production schedule.

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At 5 p.m., half an hour before the conclusion of his 10-and-a-half-hour shift, Italie's supervisor called him into the personnel office, where he was greeted by the plant's head of security. "Because of your views of the U.S. government, which are contrary to those of this agency, you are a disruptive force and cannot work here anymore," he said, according to Italie. "Take your things and go."

Italie does indeed have a view of the U.S. government that is unconventional, even hostile: As a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he favors creation of a "workers' and farmers' government" in the United States along the lines envisioned by Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. (The Socialist Workers Party began life in 1928 as a Trotskyist splinter from the Communist Party U.S.A., but over the past 30 years the venerable blood-feud between Leninists and Trotskyites has faded.) "We don't advocate violence," Italie told Chatterbox. "Violence is rooted in the capitalist system." (He really does talk like that.)

Italie had not been proselytizing within the Goodwill plant, and he was not accused of doing so. His views had come to management's attention only because Italie was making a quixotic run for Miami mayor on the Socialist Workers Party ticket. A few days before his firing, Italie appeared in a TV debate and made several highly provocative remarks. Discussing the war on terrorism, he invited viewers to "join the fight to build a revolutionary working-class movement that can take power out of the hands of the warmakers." Italie also spoke words that were guaranteed to enrage Miami voters: "I support the Cuban Revolution." (For a fuller account of what Italie said in the debate, see articles in the Socialist Workers Party house organ, The Militant, here and here.)

Chatterbox was drawn to Italie's case not out of sympathy for his politics, which Chatterbox considers abhorrent, but out of sympathy for Italie himself. We were childhood friends in New Rochelle, N.Y., and we bunked together at Camp Arcady in Hague, N.Y. I lost contact with Mike at the age of 12 (we moved away). Evidently we followed very different paths thereafter. We spoke today for the first time in 32 years.

A less sentimental factor that draws Chatterbox to Italie's case is Chatterbox's belief in the First Amendment. Goodwill makes no bones about the fact that it fired Italie not for any on-the-job conduct but for holding views it does not wish to be associated with. "We cannot have anyone who is attempting to subvert the United States of America," Dennis Pastrana, chief executive of Goodwill in South Florida, told the Miami Herald on Oct. 30. "His political beliefs are those of a communist who would like to destroy private ownership of American enterprises and install a communist regime in the United States."

It seems reasonable to ask what business Michael Italie's political convictions were to his employer. But when the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union looked into Italie's case, it discovered, as Pastrana evidently had, that Goodwill was on strong legal footing. "There is no legal case to be brought," explains Miami chapter president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff. "The law is pretty clear that a private employer can fire someone based on their political speech even when that political speech does not affect the terms and conditions of employment." A public employer would be prevented from firing someone based on political speech (because that would constitute the government itself suppressing free speech). Rodriguez-Taseff briefly held out some hope that Goodwill could be challenged based on its government contracts. Apparently, though, the case law isn't favorable for government contractors, either. Italie told Chatterbox that every lawyer he's spoken with has told him essentially the same thing. Everyone who isn't a lawyer, Italie said, is outraged. Chatterbox tested this hypothesis by describing Italie's case to Ronald Radosh, the virulently anti-Communist writer. "Everybody has a right to run for mayor on the SWP ticket," Radosh said. "That's a clear-cut infringement of civil liberties."

The irony is that one can make (and many have made) the case that people like Michael Italie shouldn't be permitted to hold jobs in government, where at least in theory they have the power to subvert the U.S. system. Yet it is in government where Italie would be protected. In the private sector, where Italie is entirely harmless, he enjoys no protection at all.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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