Updated: Jul 4, 2019
In a stunning 5-4 ruling Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) directly attacked workers' rights, ruling that companies can use arbitration clauses that employees are forced to sign to prevent them from organizing and filing class action lawsuits, including those for unfair pay and working conditions.
The vote was a solid slap in the face of American workers by the court’s Republican justices, who formed the majority in ruling against efforts by workers to organize.
The decision is also an attack on the many blue-collar workers who voted overwhelmingly for Trump, but who now will have limited legal options to resolve serious workplace grievances. Effectively, the court chose to protect corporations over workers.
The crux of the case, Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis, was whether the Federal Arbitration Act, passed in 1947, compels two willing parties (the employer and employees), to use arbitration to resolve grievances.
The employees contended they still retain the right to pursue collective legal action against the company under the National Labor Relations Act, a 1935 law that allowed workers to organize and collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions. They argued that pursuing legal action against the employer freed them from the obligations to participate in arbitration.
The Republican majority, however, viewed it otherwise.
Writing for the majority, Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointee, said the SCOTUS’ decision was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. Gorsuch said that if workers are allowed to organize and pursue legal action, “the virtues that Congress originally saw in arbitration – its speed, simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would look like the litigation it was meant to displace.”
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the decision “egregiously wrong.” Ginsberg said the decision will result in “a huge under-enforcement of federal and state statues designed to advance the well being of vulnerable employees.”
Why It Matters
According one report, more than 60 million employees are forced to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment. If your job depends on signing an arbitration agreement – it’s the only thing that stands between you and gainful employment – most people would feel compelled to do so and keep the lights on and food on the table.
But, it’s only after working in the job that some of the conditions come to light for employees. Being prohibited from organizing to pursue collective legal action over unfair pay and dangerous working conditions that must now be settled through arbitration -- designed to protect the company’s interest in the first place -- is unjust and will hurt American workers -- including school teachers throughout the country fighting collectively for fair pay, adequate school funding and pension protection.
Elections Have Consequences
For Democrats who sat out the last election or decided that they couldn’t support an imperfect candidate in Hillary Clinton, the Supreme Court’s decision is another reminder that there are consequences to the outcomes of elections.
When American workers are effectively stripped of the right to organize to fight for better pay and working conditions and instead, are forced into arbitration stacked in favor of the company, they will lose.
And when our elected officials fill judicial benches with Republican justices who believe that “corporations are people too,” American workers can expect that in exchange for the ability to provide for their families, they also may have to give up the right to fight against unfair pay and working conditions.
The American labor force is in a dangerous place when corporations matter more than the rights of workers. And there’s no clearer demonstration that every election mattersthan the outcome of this court’s epic fail--perpetrated at the expense, safety and wellbeing of the American worker.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.