Can workers refuse a direct order? When you refuse to carry out a direct order, it is called insubordination. Non-union workers have no right to disagree with their boss, even politely, and usually no protection if they are accused of insubordination. Most of the time, a union can not protect a worker who refuses a direct order - even if the order is against your rights under the contract or law. Workers have to follow the order and then file a grievance. This is called "obey now, grieve later."

To discipline a union member for insubordination, management has to show that:

  • Management told the worker that it was a direct order; AND
  • Management told the worker what would happen if she disobeyed the order.

There are two reasons that you can refuse a direct order:

  • You reasonably believed that you were told to do something illegal; OR
  • You reasonably believed that you would be in immediate danger.

If you are reading this because you are already in trouble for refusing a direct order, there is a little hope. When you appeal the discipline, present information about why you refused the order. It is reasonable to negotiate for less discipline since the order you refused to obey was not fair. Remember that it's not insubordination if your boss didn't tell you that it was a direct order AND what would happen if you refused.

"Obey now, grieve later" can be very frustrating and unfair. It can take a long time to settle a grievance, even if you win. All the time you are fighting to win the grievance, you are supposed to go along with management's unfair order. Talk to the union to see if there is a way to speed up the grievance. Also, talk with your co-workers and the union steward to figure out ways to pressure management to wait for the grievance to be settled before making anyone follow the rule. Workers can pressure management by making it clear they are united (for example, refusing to volunteer for overtime, slow down production by following every rule and policy exactly (called "work-to-rule"), or going to the boss as a group and presenting their case.

Can non-union workers refuse a direct order?

Workers without union protection can be fired for no reason at all. They have no right to disagree with their boss, even politely. There is no fair system to have a neutral person decide on a disagreement (grievance) between a boss and non-union worker. Without union protection, workers can almost always be fired for refusing to do what their boss orders, no matter how unfair or stupid.
The only times you may be able to fight a discipline for insubordination is:

  • if workers who are protected from discrimination (race, age, gender,etc) are disciplined for insubordination but other workers are not disciplined for refusing similar orders;
  • if you refuse to break the law. Whether you have protection for refusing to break the law depends on what state you work in, which industry, and which law is being broken.