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I am a union construction worker. Under my agreement with the union, I agree to be sent where the union sees fit, and not quit. (I'm an apprentice.)

Having recently completed a job, the contractor wanted to transfer me to another location. For personal, and possibly medical reasons, I declined, and requested a lay-off.

The contractor instead issued me a "quit-ticket" which claims I have quit the job. This breaches my contract with the union. The job is completed, as in the work at the job site is finished, and there is no more work for me to do.

My question is whether this is some form of extortion, or what the legal term is for this type of scenario. They could have fired me, or laid me off, neither of which would force me to breech my union contract.

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    What does your union rep say about it?
    – user35069
    Sep 6, 2022 at 12:54
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    I'm not clear on the "forced" part of your question. Who or what forced to you breach anything. It sounds to me as if YOU made the decision to not follow the terms of your contract.
    – jwh20
    Sep 6, 2022 at 13:11
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    Declining work and "requesting a layoff" means you quit. Period. Trying to artfully dodge responsibility for your actions by using such euphemisms is either naive or dishonest. You breached the contract voluntarily when you turned down the next assignment. Sep 6, 2022 at 15:20
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    Please add a tag about where you work.
    – o.m.
    Sep 6, 2022 at 16:42
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    @j0h: It is improbable that you work for the union in my estimation. There are relatively few employee-owned corporations in the world, and the arrangement you describe would make your union one of them. The more likely situation is that you are either employed or contracted by the contractor, and the union represents you on a collective bargaining basis. In the US, you can verify this by looking at the company name that appears on your W-2 or 1099 form. That's the company you work for (or, in the case of a 1099, you are self-employed, and that's the company that contracts your work).
    – Kevin
    Mar 19, 2023 at 21:21

4 Answers 4

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what is it called when you are forced to breach a contract?

You might be referring to constructive termination or constructive discharge.

Held v. Gulf Oil Co., 684 F.2d 427, 432 (1982) explains that a claim of constructive termination arises where "working conditions would have been so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee's shows would have compelled to resign" (citations omitted).

Whether a reasonable person in your shoes would feel compelled to resign depends on what your "personal, and possibly medical reasons" are/were at the time of the events and whether the employer sought to take advantage of that.

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The term for a case where a party is forced to breach a contract depends on whether the breach was caused by human-caused or natural events. If it was caused by people (e.g. you couldn't get to work because all possible routes were blocked by construction), it's a force majeure (literally "superior force"). If it's natural (e.g. you had to stay inside because of a hurricane) it's an act of God.

However, a force majeure or an act of God does not automatically free a party from obligations under the contract. They are relevant only if the contract has a clause allowing for exceptions in such cases, or if they so severely impair the party's ability to fulfill the contract that it is actually impossible, not just difficult or expensive. In this case, the impossibility doctrine does free the affected party from the impossible portions of the contract.

If the contract had a Hell or high water clause, then none of this would apply and you would be obligated to work even if it were physically impossible, but this seems unlikely in an employment contract.

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    Note that force majeure is a creature of the contract in common law jurisdictions. That is, what is fm and what the effect is, has to be spelled out in the contract; absent this, a fm event does not excuse performance of obligations under the contract. Impossibility is hard - it literally has to be impossible, not just hard or expensive.
    – Dale M
    Sep 6, 2022 at 21:13
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This is on you, unfortunately

Under my agreement with the union, I agree to be sent where the union sees fit, and not quit.

So you agreed to this

Having recently completed a job, the contractor wanted to transfer me to another location.

Sounds like this is within their rights under the contract

for personal, and possibly medical reasons, I declined, and requested a lay-off.

You declined. They aren't laying you off, there is still work to be done. If "possibly medical reasons" means you can maybe claim to be sick, you should've claimed to be sick at the start.

The contractor instead issued me a "quit-ticket" which claims I have quit the job.

You did quit the job. The job is going where they send you, not the one place you want to work. Next time, ask the foreman what happens if you don't go to the next site. Talk to your rep if it isn't clear. Understand that your place in the union as an apprentice isn't quite a "we'll help you do whatever you want" situation.

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Impossibility to perform the actions required from you in a contract is a credible defense to contract breach.

The impossibility standard is quite literal. It cannot just be hard or inconvenient for you to do what is required but impossible.

You may have to consult a contract lawyer to get advice specific to your situation, but as a general rule of thumb contracts cannot force anyone to do the impossible.

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