Supreme Court Case Threatens Workers’ Rights to Stand Up for Themselves

By Courtney Shaffer
Intern, USW Communications

The Supreme Court began its fall term with a case that could have a big impact on the ways workers can hold their employers legally accountable, potentially limiting their rights to file collective suits against employers who have committed crimes like discrimination or wage theft.

Currently some 10 million Americans, more than half of private-sector non-union workers, have been required to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, agreements that force workers into individual arbitration rather than collective suits, should one choose to sue their company for any reason. The Supreme Court, which began hearing testimony this month, will determine if these mandates are legal.

Employers love arbitration because it heavily favors them. They can divide workers, even when their experiences are similar, and they can bury systematic exploitation, forcing each worker to hire his or her own lawyer and make his or her individual case behind closed doors.  

For example, the current Supreme Court case, National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil, began when Murphy Oil routinely failed to compensate employees who worked before and after their scheduled shifts. After realizing they could not collectively sue Murphy Oil for stealing their overtime pay, the workers’ only option was to file claims individually in arbitration hearings.

Workers who are not bound to individual arbitration are 50 times more likely to sue their employer for lost wages and more than half of those cases are decided in favor of the workers, according to Alexander Colvin, an arbitration expert at Cornell University. In arbitration, only about 21 percent of workers win, and even if they do, they only receive about 20 percent of the money owed to them.

If private businesses can force employees to sign “class-action waivers,” then the idea of restricting employees could easily expand to jeopardize other workplace rights such as jointly asking for wage increases outside of a traditional union context.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg compared class-action waivers to yellow-dog contracts which banned any workers from forming labor unions before being banned in 1934. “There’s no true bargaining,” the Justice said, “It’s the employer saying ‘You want to work here you sign this.’”


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Posted In: Union Matters

Union Matters

Freight can’t wait

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

A freight train hauling lumber and nylon manufacturing chemicals derailed, caught fire and caused a 108-year-old bridge to collapse in Tempe, Ariz., this week, in the second accident on the same bridge within a month.

The bridge was damaged after the first incident, according to Union Pacific railroad that owns the rail bridge, and re-opened two days later. 

The official cause of the derailments is still under investigation, but it remains clear that the failure to modernize and maintain America’s railroad infrastructure is dangerous. 

In 2019, 499 trains that derailed were found to have defective or broken track, roadbed or structures, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s database of safety analysis.

While railroad workers’ unions have called for increased safety improvements, rail companies have also used technology and automation as an excuse to downsize their work forces.

For example, rail companies have implemented a cost-saving measure known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which has resulted in mass layoffs and shoddy safety protocols. 

Though privately-owned railroads have spent significantly to upgrade large, Class I trains, regional Class II trains and local, short-line Class III trains that carry important goods for farmers and businesses still rely on state and local funds for improvements. 

But cash-strapped states struggle to adequately inspect new technologies and fund safety improvements, and repairing or replacing the aging track and rail bridges will require significant public investment.

A true infrastructure commitment will not only strengthen the country’s railroad networks and increase U.S. global economic competitiveness. It will also create millions of family-sustaining jobs needed to inspect, repair and manufacture new parts for mass transit systems, all while helping to prevent future disasters.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work