Supreme Court Opens its New Term with a Direct Attack on Workers’ Rights

Ian Millhiser

Ian Millhiser Senior Constitutional Policy Analyst, Think Progress

The Supreme Court returns next Monday from its summer vacation for the first full term where Neil Gorsuch will occupy a seat at the far end of the Court’s bench. And the Court will open this term with a trio of cases that are very likely to immunize many employers from consequences for their illegal actions.

The three cases — National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USAErnst & Young LLP v. Morris, and Epic Systems v. Lewis — all involve employment contracts cutting off employee’s rights to sue their employer for legal violations.

In at least one case, employees were required to sign the contract as a condition of beginning work. In another, employees were forced to give up their rights as a condition of keeping their job. These contracts contained two restrictions on the employees: 1) a “forced arbitration” provision, which requires any legal disputes between the employer and the employee to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system; and 2) a provision prohibiting employees from bringing class actions or other collective suits against their employers.

Requiring private arbitration favors employers over employees. As an Economic Policy Institute study determined, employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator than before a court, and they typically receive less money from an arbitrator when they do prevail.

Banning class action suits, meanwhile, effectively permits employers to violate the law with impunity, so long as they do not do too much harm to any individual employee.

If an employer cheats one employee out of $300,000 worth of wages, for example, that employee is likely to be able to find a lawyer who will take his case on a contingency basis — meaning that the lawyer gets a percentage of what the employee collects from the employer if they win. If the same employer cheats 10,000 employees out of $30 each, however, no lawyer is going to represent any one of these workers on a contingency basis. Plus, few employees are likely to bother with a $30 suit. It’s too much hassle, and too expensive to hire a lawyer who won’t work on contingency. The solution to this problem is a class action suit, which allows the 10,000 employees to join together in a single case litigated by a single legal team.

Banning such class actions effectively leaves these employees without remedy. As one federal judge explained, “the realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

The employer’s claim that they can combine a forced arbitration clause with a class action ban arises out of two previous Supreme Court cases that took an extraordinarily creative view of a nearly 100-year-old law.

In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act to allow, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once explained, “merchants with relatively equal bargaining power” to agree to resolve their disputes through arbitration. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Court started to read this law expansively to permit forced arbitration between businesses and relatively powerless consumers and employees.

Then, the Court got even more aggressive. By its own terms, the Federal Arbitration Act exempts “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Nevertheless, in its 5-4 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court held that the Act applies to most workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce. Thus, forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts were given special protected status, even though the federal law governing these clauses says otherwise.

Similarly, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a 5-4 Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act has penumbras, formed by emanations from its guarantees that give it life and substance. The right of businesses to insert class action bans, Scalia claimed, is one of these penumbras contained in the 1925 law. And so businesses gained the power to add no class action clauses to their forced arbitration agreements, even if a ban on class actions violates state law — and despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act says nothing about class actions.

Nevertheless, the employees in Murphy Oil and its companion cases hope that another provision of law will protect them from signing away their right to join a class action.

A provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Several lower courts have held that an employee’s right to engage in “concerted activities” protects their right to join class actions, and they cite multiple previous Supreme Court decisions which lend credibility to this claim.

In a world governed by the text of the law, employees would have a strong case that they cannot be forced to give up their right to bring class action litigation. But we live in a world governed by Circuit City and Concepcion — both of which demonstrate the Supreme Court’s willingness to take liberties with the law in forced arbitration cases.

***

Reposted from ThinkProgress

Ian Millhiser is a Senior Constitutional Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox News and many radio shows.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

More ...

There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work