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A Rundown of All the Ways Trump Is Overseeing an All Out, Under-the-Radar Attack on Workers

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Amidst headlines about porn stars and bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it can be hard to track the many ways the Trump administration is hurting workers in the United States. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling that struck a blow to unions’ ability to collect membership dues held a brief spotlight in the national news churn. But in a more-quiet fashion, the Trump administration already has been slowly dismantling worker protections, especially those enacted under the Obama administration.     

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would help workers. He even boasted, “I have great relationships with unions.” But actions speak louder than words, and the policies pursued by the Trump administration have directly targeted middle and lower-income workers and labor unions.

The anti-labor attack gained momentum in the last weeks of 2017. President Trump had to wait until his two nominees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were confirmed. Those new members flipped the board’s majority from Democratic to Republican. The NLRB, which oversees collective bargaining law and enforcement of U.S. labor laws and standards, then quickly issued a slew of key decisions that rolled back a number of worker- and union-related reforms.

In one of the most important changes, the NLRB reversed a 2011 ruling that helped workers form smaller unions within a single workplace. The precedent set under Obama allowed the holding of a union election without including all the different types of jobs within that business that don’t share similar job duties, wages and working conditions. Employers complained that it led to “micro unions.” In a specific case, after 100 welders unionized at a large manufacturing plant, the NLRB ruled that the smaller organizing unit was illegitimate since any union election would have to include all 2,500 workers at the company, spanning 120 job classifications. The NLRB ruled 3-2 along partisan lines.

Another consequential case decided under Trump will hurt low-income fast food workers. The Trump board overturned a major 2015 decision that ruled employers are responsible for bargaining with workers, even if they have only indirect control over those workers’ employment. Fast-food companies like McDonald’s license smaller franchise businesses to run most of their restaurants. McDonald’s instructs these franchises on how to operate but leaves them to control many aspects of their day-to-day business. For decades, franchise employees who wished to bargain collectively were caught in a vicious trap. Their boss, the franchise operator, could insist that McDonald’s controlled the terms of their employment. But if they tried to bargain with McDonald’s, the company would insist that the franchise operator was their true employer.

Obama’s NLRB solved this problem by clarifying that companies like McDonald’s are, jointly with franchise operators, employers of these workers and can be forced to the bargaining table. This new standard permitted much more meaningful collective bargaining among millions of low-wage workers. Longer term, that ruling on joint employers would have dramatically improved collective bargaining rights in the fast-food industry. But the GOP majority on the NLRB scrapped this standard, returning to an old, stringent policy that requires employers to exercise “immediate and direct” control in order to be liable under labor law.

Other damaging decisions by Trump’s NLRB include:

— Reversing a 2004 decision bolstering workers’ rights to organize free from employer interference.

— Reversing a 2016 decision safeguarding unionized workers’ rights to bargain over changes in employment terms.

— Overturning a 2016 decision that required settlements between employers and employees to provide a “full remedy” to aggrieved workers, instead of partial settlements.

All of these were 3–2 decisions, with Republicans in the majority and Democrats dissenting.

Beyond the NLRB

But the NLRB is only one federal agency. Trump’s Labor Department has also rolled back several rules and executive orders that the Obama administration issued to protect workers. Those include the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required companies bidding for large federal contracts to disclose and correct past labor and safety violations. Another rescinded rule had established guidelines for when states can drug-test applicants for unemployment insurance benefits. Also rescinded was the “persuader rule,” which required law firms to publicly disclose any work they do for employers trying to fight against union organization efforts.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has delayed three workplace safety rules issued during the last year of Obama’s presidency. Those rules required certain employers to submit injury and illness data electronically to OSHA for publication on the agency’s website; tightened exposure standards for silica dust, which is often breathed in by certain construction workers and linked to lung disease; and weakened workplace exposure limits for beryllium, an industrial mineral linked to lung cancer.

The Supreme Court also ruled to allow employers to require workers to sign arbitration agreements that waive their rights to file class or collective action lawsuits. Last June, Trump’s acting solicitor general filed a brief with the Court that took the opposite stance from the Obama administration, asserting that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Another important ruling made under the Obama administration regarded which workers were eligible to receive overtime pay. The Obama-era rules required nearly everyone paid less than $47,476 a year to be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week. That was a big jump from the $23,660 threshold in place since 2004, and a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s efforts to lift wages. But a federal judge in Texas blocked that rule a week before it was scheduled to take effect, and Obama’s Labor Department appealed. However, Trump’s Labor Department filed a brief in federal appellate court indicating it will not advocate for these overtime changes.

In addition to all that, the Trump administration has proposed $2.6 billion in budget cuts—an enormous 21 percent—to the Department of Labor. Those cuts include a proposed elimination of four department programs and their services, such as training for worker-safety and for migrant farmworkers. The budget also seeks to significantly slash funding for Job Corps, a program that provides job training to disadvantaged youth, by $407 million, or 24 percent. Dimitri Iglitzin, a labor attorney in Seattle, says that “Of all of the ways that the Trump administration has been crushing labor, the most important has been the neutering of the Department of Labor. On a day-to-day basis, the agency that should be fighting for working people is doing so no longer.”

Typically, when the U.S. government shifts from a Democratic presidential administration to a Republican one, a certain level of pro-business policies and erosion of labor rights is expected. However, many labor experts say that the presidency of Donald Trump has led to a repeal of Obama administration regulations that is unprecedented, and is proceeding faster than is typical under a new GOP administration. Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., says the Trump rollbacks of various pro-labor rules and regulations, in addition to deep cuts to the Labor Department’s budget, have been devastating to U.S. workers and “are not business as usual.”

In just over a year and a half as president, Donald Trump has wiped away a number of the modest policy gains that organized labor made during the Obama years. The nominees he chose to fill crucial regulatory roles already are making it more difficult for workers. Taken together, this blizzard of decisions will hurt millions of workers and weaken their abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.

Another way forward

But it does not have to be like this. Germany, Sweden and other EU member states show another path that is better for workers and that creates a stronger relationship between businesses, employees and trade unions.

Countries like Germany and Sweden have stronger labor laws than in the United States, and consequently more influential trade unions. In addition, many EU member states benefit from what is known as “co-determination,” which includes works councils at every job site and worker-elected boards of directors for the biggest of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. Imagine if Walmart and Amazon were legally required to allow its workers to elect up to 50% of the members of its board of directors? It’s unimaginable to most Americans, yet this is standard practice throughout Europe. Co-determination fosters a “culture of consultation” and a degree of economic democracy. As a result, there is more broadly shared prosperity, with social supports like universal health care, child care, affordable university education, affordable housing, job training/re-skilling, workplace protections, a decent retirement and more.

In an age of growing inequality, the European practice of co-determination has broken with a strictly “shareholder model,” and has set a standard for corporate governance that holds great potential for the digital age if used in a widespread fashion.

Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan has proposed that U.S. states should try out codetermination. Geoghegan says states should offer tax breaks to companies that allow rank-and-file employees to elect a third to a half of its corporate board of directors. Doing so, says Geoghegan, would allow U.S. companies to test drive an alternative model to the current dysfunctional stockholder model. Also, states could try out this model by requiring that nonprofits, NGOs and universities allow their employees to elect a portion of its board of directors or trustees.

Three senators (Democrats Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz) have introduced legislation that would require that companies allow workers to elect one-third of their corporate board. The bill is not expected to pass, and while the AFL-CIO has endorsed this legislation, historically unions and labor advocates have not taken up this cause. Yet labor leaders don’t seem to have any other proposals that might stop the hemorrhaging of union members.

Certainly such progressive proposals are going nowhere at the federal level under the administration of Donald Trump. So the landscape for political change has shifted to states and to cities where Democrats and progressives are more dominant. Still, even when Democrats have been in control, whether at the federal level under President Obama or in heavily Democratic states like California, Maryland and Massachusetts, there has been little appetite to push the boundaries of ways to support labor unions or progressive labor reform.

Which is surprising, since the unionization rate in the United States has fallen to fewer than 7 percent in the private sector and 11 percent of all workers. And future prospects don’t look too bright.

In an age when many workers are becoming freelancers and contractors who supposedly are the “CEOs of their own business” (whether driving for Uber, or being a hotelier for Airbnb, or a freelancer for Upwork and dozens of other online platform companies), the fate of labor unions hasn’t been this threatened in nearly a century. The Trump administration is just the latest nail in a slowly closing coffin that has been in process for decades. It’s time for U.S. labor unions to try new tactics.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is a senior fellow at FairVote, a former senior fellow and political reform program director with the New America Foundation, and former Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. For more information, visit Steven Hill’s website at www.Steven-Hill.com and follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776.

Trump's Supreme Court pick is eager to take the war on workers up a notch

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Another week, another bout of Supreme Court-related horror for workers. Up this week, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad—a reminder that, even following a disastrous-for-workers Supreme Court session, things can get worse.

  • Daily Kos’ own Meteor Blades wrote about Kavanaugh’s awful SeaWorld dissent, noting that Kavanaugh’s demeanor as he makes the rounds of the senators he needs to vote to confirm him is surely a sharp contrast with “the snarls and sneers and outright contempt contained in his judicial record when he talks about workers.”
  • Brett Kavanaugh once sided with an anti-union company that scapegoated undocumented workers, Ethan Miller writes. Oh, and the son of the owner of that company? Was sentenced to prison, the company’s violations were so egregious … and then Donald Trump pardoned him.
  • Moshe Marvit writes that Trump’s Supreme Court pick could spell a fresh hell for workers, citing repeated cases in which Kavanaugh ruled against the most basic exercises of the right to organize, like wearing t-shirts critical of the employer or displaying pro-union signs in parked cars.
  • And while I haven’t come across any allegations that Kavanaugh has a history of sexual harassment—and in fact the execrable Amy Chua wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he’s been a good mentor to women (I’m not linking, the piece is so disgusting and such an indictment of the elite legal world)—it’s worth noting that Kavanaugh clerked for and remained notably close to Judge Alex Kozinski, who was forced to retire due to a well-established pattern of harassment. Did he know? It’s a question worth asking. And if he didn’t know, how didn’t he know?

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Trump’s Supreme Court Pick Could Spell a Fresh Hell for Workers’ Rights

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, Chief Justice John Roberts, a fellow conservative, will become the ideological and political center of the Supreme Court, and protections for women, minorities, voting rights, civil liberties and more could come under threat. Workers and labor unions should be particularly concerned about Judge Kavanaugh’s history of siding with businesses against workers and for pushing a deregulatory agenda.

In his 13 years on the Court, Chief Justice Roberts has helped to unleash unlimited corporate money into politics, open the door to mass voter disenfranchisement and lay the groundwork to strengthen the power of corporations over consumers and employees. He has also, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, led the conservative project of “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.” This is who will now be the swing vote on the Supreme Court if Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Kavanaugh, who is 53 years old, once clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who abruptly retired last year after a long history of sexual harassment was revealed. Previously, Kavanaugh worked with Kenneth Starr to investigate President Clinton and draft the report that lead to Clinton’s impeachment. Over his last 12 years on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,  Kavanaugh has shown himself to be an extraordinarily conservative judge. An analysis by Axios determined that Kavanaugh is just slightly less conservative than the most conservative member of the Court, Clarence Thomas.

A review of Judge Kavanaugh’s decisions regarding workers’ rights shows a disturbing trend of siding with employers on a range of issues.

In Southern New England Telephone Co. v. NLRB (2015), Kavanaugh overruled the NLRB’s decision that the employer committed an unfair labor practice when it barred workers from wearing T-shirts that said, “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. Under the law, employees are permitted to wear union apparel to work, and the NLRB found that these shirts were protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The Board rejected the argument that “special circumstances” warranted limiting workers’ rights, because no reasonable person would conclude that the worker was a prison convict.

Kavanaugh rejected the Board’s legal analysis, writing, “Common sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes. … No company, at least one that is interested in keeping its customers, presumably wants its employees walking into people’s homes wearing shirts that say ‘Inmate’ and ‘Prisoner.’” Kavanaugh was undoubtedly correct in his understanding of the company’s desire not to have workers wear such shirts, which is precisely why the workers did so. What the unions did in wearing the shirts was apply pressure in a labor dispute in a manner that the law has long allowed. However, Kavanaugh criticized the Board’s analysis, writing that “the appropriate test for ‘special circumstances’ is not whether AT&T’s customers would confuse the ‘Inmate/Prisoner’ shirt with actual prison garb, but whether AT&T could reasonably believe that the message may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image.” By shifting the focus to the employer’s public image, Kavanaugh undercut the right of workers to publicly protest and dissent.

In Verizon New England Inc. v. NLRB (2016), Kavanaugh overturned the NLRB’s ruling that workers could display pro-union signs in their cars parked in the company parking lot after the union waived its members’ right to picket. In his decision, Kavanaugh held that “No hard-and-fast definition of the term ‘picketing’ excludes the visible display of pro-union signs in employees’ cars rather than in employees’ hands, especially when the cars are lined up in the employer’s parking lot and thus visible to passers-by in the same way as a picket line.” Therefore, according to Kavanaugh, the union’s waiver of the right to picket also applied to signs left in cars.

Judge Kavanaugh again overruled a pro-worker NLRB decision in Venetian Casino Resort, L.L.C. v. NLRB (2015). The NLRB had determined that the casino committed an unfair labor practice when, in response to a peaceful demonstration by employees (for which they had a permit), the casino called the police on the workers. Citing the First Amendment, Kavanaugh held that “When a person petitions the government in good faith, the First Amendment prohibits any sanction on that action.” Calling the police to enforce state trespassing laws, Kavanaugh concluded, deserved such protection.

In UFCW AFL CIO 540 v. NLRB (2014), Judge Kavanaugh issued an anti-worker decision involving Wal-Mart’s “meat wars.” After 10 meat cutters in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to form the first union at a Wal-Mart, the company closed its meat operations in 180 stores and switched to pre-packaged meats. (The notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart denied that its decision had anything to do with the union vote.) After the switch, Wal-Mart refused to bargain with the meat cutters, arguing that they no longer constituted an appropriate bargaining unit. Judge Kavanaugh agreed with Wal-Mart’s argument, but did write that Wal-Mart must bargain with the union over the effects of the conversion of the employees.

Judge Kavanaugh has consistently sided with employers in labor law cases, to the detriment of workers’ labor rights. He also has argued that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established in 2011, is unconstitutional, and Aaron Klein, director of the Center on Regulation and Markets at the Brookings Institution, has said that his nomination “could reverse over a century of American financial regulation.”

Labor advocates should be extremely concerned about this ideological bent if Kavanaugh becomes a justice on an already very business friendly—and conservative—Supreme Court.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Janus Is Here—But Don’t Ring the Death Knell for the Labor Movement

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

In a major decision that will impact labor for decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has just declared that all public-sector workers who are represented by a union have a Constitutional right to pay the union nothing for the representation.

The Court overturned its landmark 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted public-sector unions to charge fair-share fees that covered the costs of providing collective bargaining and contract administration to non-members that were represented by the union. Today, in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment prohibits public employee unions from charging a mandatory fee for the costs of representation. Therefore, going forward, all public-sector employees will be under so-called “right to work,” the union-busting legal framework that denies unions the ability to charge workers dues. This decision will directly and indirectly impact how unions are structured, how they engage with their members and objectors, how they organize and educate and how they are funded. But this decision will not destroy, defund or decimate labor.

First off, the Janus decision will only directly impact less than half of the labor movement. This is because the ruling only applies to public-sector workers: federal, state and local government employees. However, federal employees (including postal employees) have long been under so-called “right to work,” so Janus will have minimal direct impact on them. Furthermore, many state and local public-sector workers are already in “right to work” states, so this ruling will have no effect on them. This is not to say that the whole labor movement will not be negatively impacted by a decline in membership among public-sector unions, but it is important to remember that Janus will not place all union members under “right to work.”

It is difficult to predict what effect Janus will have on union membership overall. There is a good chance there will be at least some decline in membership, thanks to the free-rider problem: the likelihood of some workers who are not opposed to the union choosing to pay nothing simply because they can get something for nothing. However, state-level data on the decline of union membership following the passage of state “right to work” laws is not necessarily a good predictor of what will happen after Janus, because most of the state laws are a mixture of anti-worker laws that include “right to work.” For example, in Wisconsin, union membership declined 38 percent  between 2010 (the year prior to the passage of Act 10) and 2016. However, Act 10 contained a host of other provisions, such as the elimination of collective bargaining for public-sector workers.

Following Janus, unions will now have to fight for every union member to ensure they choose to remain members and pay their dues. Right-wing groups of the sort that brought Janus, Friedrichs and other anti-union cases, will mount a nationwide campaign to get members to quit the union. Many labor unions that have not been strong in engaging their membership will have to keep up a constant level of contact and organization to maintain their memberships or risk losing big. They will have to make the case to members why they should stay with the union and pay dues, and they will have to make that case often.

Unions are considering a number of options for getting state laws changed, or changing internal policy, to adjust to Janus. New York passed a law in anticipation of Janus, which other states are considering, that would allow unions to deny or charge for some services, such as grievance representation. Some states are considering laws that would require workers who are not members of the union to pay for representation in grievance procedures. This approach would have the benefit of discouraging free-ridership by not providing the full benefits of membership to those workers who choose not to join. However, it carries the danger of turning unions into pay-for-service organizations that will find themselves turning away workers in their time of need.

Labor law professor Samuel Estreicher has proposed an interesting approach that unions could take that would reduce the rate of possible free-riders, not require legislation, and not require unions to turn away non-paying workers. Estreicher argues that unions should require workers who choose not to pay their union dues to instead donate the money to a 501(c)(3) charity. Unions already permit religious objectors to take this route, and Estreicher suggests expanding the program to any objectors. Since this approach would require all workers to pay an amount equivalent to their dues—but would let them decide if the recipient was the union representing them or a charity—it would separate the true objectors from the free-riders.

The allowance of fair-share fees, in both the public and private sector, was in part intended to promote labor peace, and the imposition of “right to work” may lead to more strikes and labor unrest. The massive teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina have all taken place in “right to work” states, and this commonfact was likely no coincidence. Workers in “right to work” states tend to have lower salaries and fewer benefits. Meanwhile, unions are weaker, possibly because they serve as a moderating force to avoid direct—and often illegal—confrontation. These effects from “right to work” can create an environment where workers’ frustration grows, they have few options to better their situations without direct action, and they organize at a grass-roots level. After Janus, with “right to work” becoming the new rule for all public-sector workers, there may be a break from a long period of U.S. history when strikes have been rare.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.
This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Supreme Court takes up case that will devastate public sector unions

Friday, September 29th, 2017

In what is all but certain to be a terrible blow to organized labor, the Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case seeking to defund public sector unions. The case presents an issue that was recently before the Court, and where the justices split 4-4 along party lines.

Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, he holds the fifth vote to deliver a staggering blow to the union movement.

The issue in Janus involves what are sometimes referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” As ThinkProgress explained when this issue was last before the Court:

Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

To prevent this free-rider problem, union contracts often include a provision requiring non-members to pay agency fees.

The plaintiff in Janus asks the Supreme Court to declare these agency fees unconstitutional, at least in contracts involving public sector unions, under what can charitably be described as an aggressive reading of the First Amendment. Indeed, prior to his death, even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes appeared skeptical of the plaintiff’s legal theory (although he did join an opinionthat embraced much of it).

With Gorsuch on the bench, however, there is little suspense regarding how Janus will come down. Unions will almost certainly be severely weakened by this decision. And, as a benefit to the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan majority, that will also weaken a key arm of the Democratic party’s political infrastructure, making it more likely that the Court will remain in Republican hands.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Supreme Court opens its new term with a direct attack on workers’ rights

Monday, September 25th, 2017

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.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Labor Opponents Already Have The Next ‘Friedrichs’ SCOTUS Case Ready to Go Under Trump

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

The Supreme Court gave unions an unexpected victory last year when it issued a decision in a case that had threatened to take away the right of public sector unions to collect dues from workers they represent. That win may be short-lived.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was meant to be the capstone in decades of cases that sought to have the courts determine that fair-share fees for public sector workers are unconstitutional. Fair-share fees, or agency fees, require workers represented by a union to pay the portion of fees that covers collective bargaining. They seek to balance the worker’s right to dissent from the union by relinquishing membership and not paying for activities that aren’t related to collective bargaining, with the union’s right to avoid free riders and not be forced to represent a worker who contributes nothing.

The Supreme Court, largely through decisions written by Justice Samuel Alito, had indicated that its 1977 case that allowed for fair-share fees in the public sector was ripe for a rare overturning by the Court. It all but invited a challenge. Several cases were in the pipeline, but Friedrichs took the unusual approach of conceding before each lower court that it should be dismissed so that it could move quickly to the Supreme Court. Friedrichs faced a hostile oral argument before a conservative majority; unions braced for the worst. Then, as the Court was drafting its opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia died, and with him, so did Friedrichs. The Supreme Court issued a tied 4-4 decision affirming the lower court in March.

However, there is another case in the pipeline that was stayed pending the outcome of Friedrichs. That case, which began as Rauner v. AFSCME, was originally brought by the ultra-wealthy Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who—shortly after taking office—issued an executive order placing all fair-share fees in an escrow account, rather than turning them over to unions. But Rauner screwed up a basic part of the case because he didn’t have standing to bring the case.

A federal judge wrote that Rauner “has no personal interest at stake. He is not subject to the fair share fees requirement. Instead, he essentially claims to have a duty to protect the First Amendment rights of all public employees in the state … In effect, he seeks to represent the non-member employees subject to the fair share provisions of the collective bargaining agreements. He has no standing to do so. They must do it on their own.”

To fix the problem, employees filed as intervenors (“undoubtedly with the Governor’s blessing,” as the judge noted), with the backing of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center.

Janus v. AFSCME, named after one of the workers, is pursuing the same strategy as Friedrichs in trying to get to the Supreme Court quickly. The Janus plaintiffs filed their second amended complaint in July, stating that the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case, which permitted fair-share fees, remains good law, and all but invited the District Court in the Northern District of Illinois to dismiss their complaint. The District Court did so, and in their appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs similarly state that their case must be dismissed. The goal, of course, is to get the case in front of the Supreme Court just as a Donald Trump appointee to the Court is seated.

Seattle University School of Law professor Charlotte Garden explains that this strategy also “allows the case to go up without a factual record. This means that there is no record that the unions can point the justices to in order to show the importance of agency fees.”

In Friedrichs, Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer tried to give the union’s attorney the opportunity to state what he would have put in the record if he had had the opportunity to do so. But, as Garden explains, “being asked to make a proffer before the Supreme Court is tricky without the ability to engage in discovery.”

The Janus case is almost identical to the Friedrichs case in that both are premised on the idea that there is no line in the public sector between political and non-political activity. Conservatives justices have firmly embraced this rational, as was evident during the Friedrichs oral argument when Chief Justice John Roberts challenged California’s attorney to give his “best example of something that is negotiated over in a collective bargaining agreement with a public employer that does not present a public policy question.” The attorney responded that mileage reimbursement rates were such an example. Roberts shot back, “That’s money. That’s how much money is going to have to be paid to the teachers. If you give more mileage expenses, that costs more money.”

If everything that a public sector union does is political, then it is a much shorter line to find that a worker should not have to pay any part of the costs of collective bargaining. This would be a very worrisome conclusion for unions, which must do what they can now to stop such an outcome from happening.

As Democrats and the labor movement prepare for a possible fight over Trump’s imminent appointment to the Supreme Court, they should recognize that several major labor cases, brought by some of labor’s most persistent enemies, are waiting in the wings. Senators should question nominees about their view of Abood and other Supreme Court precedents that protect public employees’ labor rights. And if labor has any sway within the Democratic Party, it should make it clear that these issues should be disqualifying for any new appointment to the Court.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on January 4, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Why Supreme Court Nominations Are One of the Most Important Issues for Working People

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Kenneth QuinnellThere’s a lot at stake in the 2016 presidential election. While U.S. Supreme Court nominations may not be the most headline-grabbing stories that come out of a presidency, they probably should be. With Supreme Court justices serving for life and having significant power in interpreting laws that affect our daily lives, the importance of court appointments cannot be overstated.

This election, in particular, could shape up to be one of the most important elections in terms of shaping the court in American history. After Antonin Scalia’s death earlier this year, Republicans in Congress have sworn to prevent a replacement from being chosen until after the election and have stalled President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for more than 150 days. In all likelihood, it will be up to the winner of the 2016 presidential election to choose Scalia’s replacement, be it Garland or someone else.

But that’s not the end of the story. According to a 2006 study by the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, the average retirement age for Supreme Court justices is 78.7. As of the beginning of the next president’s term, three of the nine justices will be older than 80. Another will be 78. While those justices seem healthy and committed to staying on the court for the near future, Scalia seemed the same way before passing away at 79. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the next president could literally appoint a majority to the court, especially if elected for a second term.

It isn’t necessarily the case that the appointment of one or two new justices will make a significant shift right away, but over time, replacing Scalia with a justice that is less of a right-wing ideologue has the potential to reshape many areas of American law—and, in particular, much of the law surrounding the rights and lives of working people. Here are six reasons that Supreme Court nominations are one of the most important issues in the 2016 elections:

1. Gerrymandering: With a case already moving its way through the courts, this one could come up soon. And it’s a big one. Ever wonder why the country keeps voting for Democrats for president, but Republicans control Congress? A key reason is gerrymandering, the process of drawing the district lines for congressional seats for partisan advantage. Currently, 55% of congressional districts were created to favor Republicans, compared to 10% drawn in favor of Democrats. That’s why, in 2012, when Barack Obama won re-election and a majority of votes for congressional seats went to Democrats (50.59%), Republicans managed to somehow get a significant majority of House seats (53.79%). In that cycle, 1.37 million more Americans voted for Democrats, only to see Democrats end up with 33 fewer seats in the House. If one spends any time reading constitutional law, they’ll find that the precedent is pretty strongly against this type of gerrymandering. A court appointed by Hillary Clinton would likely frown heavily on this type of manipulation of the electorate.

2. Voting Rights: In 2013, the court issued a ruling that shocked President Obama, legal scholars, civil rights groups and historians. The conservative majority on the court gutted the enforcement mechanism for the Voting Rights Act. This was almost immediately followed by states that were previously required, based on a history of discrimination, to get Department of Justice approval for changes to voting laws, passing a series of laws that made it harder for many, particularly African Americans, to vote. Republicans passed laws shortening voting hours, eliminating early voting and making it harder to register and harder to vote, among other new obstacles to people exercising their right to vote. Many of these laws have been rejected by courts, and it’s likely that the Supreme Court would look very negatively on them.

3. Citizens United: The court ruled that corporations can spend as much as they want to influence elections, as long as they spend it independently of campaigns. This led to tons of money flowing into elections and the creation of super PACs. Clinton wants this ruling overturned and said she’d appoint justices that would do so. Trump’s on the other side. Clinton-appointed justices are likely to take a stricter look at other attempts by corporations and the wealthy to have more influence on elections than the rest of the electorate.

4. Corporate Influence in Supreme Court Cases: A recent study found that between 2009–2012, the one entity most likely to get a hearing at the Supreme Court, out of all petitioners, was the Chamber of Commerce. The court was not only more likely to hear cases championed by the chamber, it was more likely to decide in favor of the corporate interests the chamber supported. The court also made it harder for citizens to engage in class-action lawsuits, making it harder for citizens to sue corporations like Comcast or Walmart for hurting working people or consumers and making it less likely those working people and consumers would win cases before the court. Additionally, in the notorious Hobby Lobby case, the court allowed some corporations a religious exemption, allowing them not to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Other anti-working people decisions in recent years involved making it easier for judges to dismiss cases earlier, without going to trial, and requiring some consumers to submit to arbitration, rather than going to court.

5. Workplace Fairness: A series of 5–4 decisions during the John Roberts Court era have come down against working people and their rights on the job. These rulings will be ripe for challenges once Scalia’s seat on the court is filled. Among the key rulings that are under scrutiny are those that make it harder to sue in cases of pay discrimination, make it easier to retaliate against and fire employees who report job bias claims, make it harder to prove age discrimination on the job, weakened the Family and Medical Leave Act, made it easier to promote “right to work” at a national level, weakened overtime protections, made it easier to dismiss wage theft claims and made it easier to fire public employees for public statements made in the course of their duties.

6. Deportations: Earlier this year, the court effectively killed an executive order from Obama that would have shielded as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. It will likely be considered again under a new court.

Any number of other issues that affect working people could also come before the Supreme Court, including, but not limited to: education funding, Medicaid expansion, public funding of elections, solitary confinement of inmates, prison overcrowding and many other issues.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on August 30, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

Where Would Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland Stand on Labor Issues?

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Despite hardline Senate Republican opposition to meeting with, let alone voting on, any potential replacement for recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, on Tuesday, President Obama nominated Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia after his recent, unexpected death.

Garland is a highly qualified, well-respected judge, first appointed in 1997 by President Bill Clinton to the D.C. Circuit Court and confirmed by a vote of 76 to 23 in the Senate. Garland has been under consideration for a seat on the Supreme Court previously; he has a reputation for judicial restraint (quite unlike Scalia’s highly ideological attempt to use the Supreme Court to re-write the nation’s law).

It’s hard to give him a clear political label, but Garland does not seem to be as progressive on workers’ rights issues as Scalia was reactionary. In 2010 Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog, wrote that Garland was “essentially the model, neutral judge. He is acknowledged by all to be brilliant. His opinions avoid unnecessary, sweeping pronouncements.” On criminal law (and cases involving Guantanamo detainees), Goldstein wrote, Garland leaned a bit conservative, on first amendment, environmental and “open government” issues, a bit liberal. One consistent thread seems to be deference towards regulatory agencies, letting them make decisions without the Supreme Court always second-guessing or rewriting the law.

That sentiment may be important for labor issues before the Supreme Court, which has frequently acted to restrain the National Labor Relations Board and crimp worker rights in decades past. Scalia’s vote was crucial in the many 5-4 decisions by the Supreme Court that weakened rights and protections for American workers. His death, for example, seemed to have eliminated (for the moment) a likely 5-4 court decision in the Friedrichs case, which would have prevented public employee unions from charging non-members of the union a fee that paid for the benefits of union bargaining and grievance representation that union by law must provide.

But as Catherine Fisk notes in On Labor, the large number of 5-4 cases on labor issues suggests that “the importance of confirming a progressive is enormous,” both for future cases and potential review and overturn of earlier decisions.

Even if Garland is not a full-fledged “progressive,” his votes on NLRB cases involve more than deference to regulatory agencies,according to Hannah Belitz. In the four cases in which Garland did not agree to defer entirely to the NLRB, she wrote, Garland upheld pro-labor and voted to overturn pro-employer positions, leading her to describe him as having “an outlook that is generally favorable to union activity.”  But deference to the NLRB does not always imply support for workers.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Mary Kay Henry and UAW president Dennis Williams were labor leaders who quickly welcomed the nomination and urged speedy consideration of Garland’s nomination. Trumka, a coal miner and lawyer before his labor career, praised his “impeccable credentials and deep experience.” Henry, whose union is not part of the AFL-CIO, said he would be

a good choice for working families. His record shows that he believes in the duty of government to protect regular Americans, and our democracy, from being corrupted by the excesses of the super wealthy and their corporate agenda. He has shown that he respects the opinion of the National Labor Relations Board…, and he has upheld disclosure requirements to keep a check on the outsized influence ‘dark money’ has on our government.

Garland appears to be a judge who is pretty nonpartisan in his rulings, caught in a moment of extreme political combat that threatens the public good and could reinforce many politicians’ lack of credibility. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary committee last week argued that President Obama should nominate Merrick Garland, “a fine man,” but the president won’t because he would have to satisfy his base with a liberal appointee.  Will Hatch now vote down a “fine man” to stymie a president he does not like?

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

Notorious RBG Offers Hint to Whether Post-Scalia Court Will Be Better for Workers, Consumers

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Paul BlandMany different aspects of Justice Scalia’s legacy on the Supreme Court have been discussed extensively since his death, but one important issue has largely escaped attention: his outsized role in promoting the use of forced arbitration in consumer, employment and a wide range of other types of contracts. Fine print forced arbitration clauses bar consumers and workers from going to court, but require them to go into a corporate-designed private dispute resolution system where they are forbidden to be a part of a class action. As the New York Times set forth in a series of remarkably thorough and well-researched stories, forced arbitration has allowed corporations to break the law and get away with it in a wide variety of settings.

Justice Scalia played a central role in bringing about this state of affairs. He was not only a reliable vote for enforcing arbitration clauses and expanding the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act far beyond the intentions of its framers, but he also wrotethe most controversial and significant of the Court’s decisions enforcing forced arbitration clauses. In American Express v. Italian Colors, for example, in 2013 Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion in a sharply divided 5-4 decision holding that a take-it-or-leave-it arbitration clause could be used to prevent small businesses from actually pursuing their claims for abuse of monopoly power under the antitrust laws.This built upon Justice Scalia’s 2011 opinion for the Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which overturned (without mentioning) more than 100 decisions where appellate courts in 20 states and the majority of circuits, and district courts throughout the country, had previously held that where a provision banning class actions in an arbitration clause was proven to prevent individuals from vindicating their rights under consumer protection or civil rights laws, that the clause couldn’t be enforced. In Concepcion, Justice Scalia invented a new rule of federal law that wiped away basic state contract law rules against contracts that let corporations just opt out of basic laws.

So what does this mean for what will happen to forced arbitration now that Justice Scalia is no longer on the Court? Well, obviously everything hinges upon who ultimately succeeds him. But if the next Justice is one who refuses to put corporations’ rights to force people into arbitration ahead of all other federal and state laws, there is reason to believe that the Court may reverse decisions such asItalian Colors and Concepcion.

One of the strongest hints as to this possibility was offered by none other than Justice Scalia’s close personal friend Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just a few weeks before his death. In speaking at Brandeis University, Justice Ginsburg was reflecting on a disastrous series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the early decades of the 1900s, where it struck down minimum wage laws and many other worker protections as supposedly violating the corporate right to freedom of contract. And Justice Ginsburg linked this long discredited line of cases (the most famous of which is Lochner v. New York) with Italian Colors and Concepcion:

I was reminded of Lochner reading some decisions of the Court concerning workers, consumers, credit card holders who signed agreements saying “if you have a dispute with us, you can bring it only in arbitration — not in court — and you cannot use the class action. You must sue for your individual claim, which might be 30 dollars, and that’s it.” And that has also been described as tied to liberty of contract.

It is hard to read these words without understanding that Justice Ginsburg is indicating that Concepcion and Italian Colors are not just wrong, they are disastrously wrong, usurping the power of legislators to protect workers and consumers. Similarly, in a dissent in a very recent decision (DirecTV v. Imburgia), Justice Ginsburg noted that the Court’s “decisions have predictably resulted in the deprivation of consumers’ rights to seek redress for losses, and, turning the coin, they have insulated powerful economic interests from liability for violations of consumer-protection laws.”

That’s telling it like it is!

Justice Ginsburg is hardly the only justice to question the legitimacy of Justice Scalia’s most aggressive opinions promoting forced arbitration. In the Italian Colors case, Justice Kagan wrote an eloquent, even fierce dissent, that described the majority opinion as a “betrayal” of both the Court’s own prior arbitration decisions (the Court always used to say that arbitration just meant shifting a case from one forum (court) to another (arbitration), but was not supposed to mean that people lost their underlying substantive rights) and of the antitrust laws.

With Justice Scalia gone from the Court, no one can say what will happen next, with respect to forced arbitration or any other issue. But the exceptionally strong words of Justices Ginsburg and Kagan raise a very real possibility that the Supreme Court’s love affair — with forcing Americans into arbitration even when it lets corporations break the law with impunity — may finally be over.

This post originally appeared on thehuntingtonpost.com on February 23, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Paul Bland manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s public interest litigation docket and other advocacy.  As staff and senior attorney, he was responsible for developing, handling, and helping Public Justice’s cooperating attorneys litigate a diverse docket of public interest cases. Paul has argued and won more than 30 cases that led to reported decisions for consumers, employees or whistleblowers in six of the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the high courts of nine different states.  Paul is a 1986 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and a 1983 magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, where he received a B.A. in Government. Prior to coming to Public Justice, Paul was Chief Nominations Counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and worked for nearly seven years with Kieron F. Quinn in Baltimore, Maryland, where he handled consumer and toxic tort class actions, prosecuted qui tam suits and defended libel suits.

 

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