Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Class Action Bill Sails Into Law Without Labor Exception

February 28th, 2005 | Paula Brantner

Class action lawsuits may not be the most critical problem facing our democracy, but you wouldn’t know that from what happened recently. On February 18, the President signed the so-called “Class Action Fairness Act” into law. This law will remove most class actions from state to federal court, which might not sound so bad until you realize that the effect of the bill will be to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, a number of class action cases. Why is this bill such a top priority? Because the lawyers who bring these cases don’t generally work for large corporations, and they by and large do not give money to those currently wielding the most power in Congress.

While there were efforts in the U.S. Senate to add an amendment excepting labor and civil rights cases from the bill, it was doomed to failure, as were all amendments, ultimately. There are two ways you can view this development. One, that it was just a procedural call: since no amendments were allowed, the vote on this particular amendment does not truly represent legislators’ views on these types of cases. The other view, however, is that it is clear that a majority of Congress views lawyers who bring civil rights cases just as they view the other kinds of personal injury lawyers this bill was designed to punished.

Where were the millions of workers potentially affected by the Class Action Fairness Act during this debate? There are over 15 million union members in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics study released in January. I recently attended a conference bringing together the nation’s leading class action attorneys, sponsored by the Impact Fund. When those attending the conference were queried, it was clear that at least 15 million people are either already part of an ongoing class action case, or have been part of one in the past. This group of individuals is similar in size and scope to the number of unionized workers in the United States, yet we’re hardly tapping into that group at all.

How do you think the political debate around the Class Action Fairness Act would have been shaped if we had a movement of 15 million people behind it? I’m not necessarily talking active people: we know in unions, the vast majority pay their dues and collect their paychecks and benefits, and don’t otherwise participate in the affairs of the union, but the union speaks for them. What if politicians heard from just 1% percent of class members? That’s 150,000 people, which to legislators means millions of constituents.

While lawyers who represent workers may be vilified because their livelihood is coupled with their interest in seeing discriminatory practices end, it’s harder for our politicians to tell their constituents that their lawsuits are frivolous, when workers who have been through the harrowing experiences at issue know all too well just how false that is. While they may not be major contributors to political campaigns, workers must let their representatives know that they vote, and they are watching how their members of Congress vote on labor and employment issues.

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