Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg’

The sinister history underlying Neil Gorsuch’s decision lashing out at American workers

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The ink was barely dry on Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in Epic Systems v. Morris before Ogletree Deakins — a management-side employment law firm that earned nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in profits per equity partner last year — started hawking an “innovative new product” that would enable employers to enrich themselves at the expense of their most vulnerable workers.

Epic Systems held that employers may force their employees, under pain of termination, to sign away their right to bring a class action lawsuit against their employers. It is an invitation — if not an incentive — for wage theft, as class actions are often the only recourse available to someone robbed of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars by their boss.

Employment lawyers have known this decision was coming for months. And many of them are going to cash in.

Yet, while this Epic Systems decision became inevitable the minute Gorsuch claimed ownership of a Supreme Court seat that Senate Republicans held open more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, the Court’s decision would shock the lawmakers who actually enacted the laws at issue in this case.

Gorsuch’s opinion is a mix of willful historical ignorance, ideological blindness, and a smug insistence that he has a special window into the law that many of his more experienced colleagues lack. Now, it threatens to revive one of the Supreme Court’s most disgraceful chapters.

The new Lochnerism

The conceit of Gorsuch’s Epic Systems opinion is that workers and their bosses sit down like equal bargaining partners to hash out their terms of employment. “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?” Gorsuch begins his opinion with a question framed as if it could only have one answer. “Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?”

In reality, the facts of Epic Systems bear little resemblance to the civilized negotiation presented by Gorsuch. Workers at one of the companies at issue in this case received an email one day informing them that they must give up their right to bring class actions. Employees who “continue[d] to work at Epic,” according to the email, would “be deemed to have accepted” this agreement. A similar email was sent to the employees of one of the other companies that prevailed in Epic Systems.

These employees, in other words, only “agreed” to the terms proposed by their bosses in the same sense that a person accosted by a gunman in a dark alley “agrees” to give up their wallet. Their choice was to give up their rights or to immediately lose their jobs.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court ignored the fairly basic fact that employers typically have far more bargaining power than their workers — and can use this greater share of power to exploit their employees.

In its anti-canonical decision in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court struck down a late nineteenth century law prohibiting bakeries from overworking their bakers. Such a law, Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the Court, “interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employes [sic],” adding that “there is no contention that” bakery workers were unable “to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State.”

In reality, bakers faced horrific working environments before the “protecting arm of the State” intervened to improve these conditions.

At the time, the overwhelming majority of New York City bakeries were basement operations located in the same tenements in which their customers lived. “’Filth, cobwebs and vermin’ filled these basements,” according to a city inspector’s report. Sewer pipes ran through many such bakeries, leaking their raw contents onto the workers, their workplaces, and the dough. In one such bakery, “’the water closet walls were literally black’ with roaches from floor to ceiling.”

Bakeries often had no windows and little ventilation, filling the air with irritating flour dust and fumes. Ovens heated the workplaces into infernos. Low ceilings required many workers to crouch, and the floors were typically either dirt or rotten wood filled with rat holes.

The average bakery worker labored at least 13 hours a day in these conditions, though some worked as much as 126-hours a week. Workers, moreover, were often required to sleep on the very same tables where they prepared the dough, and the cost of these makeshift beds were then deducted from their wages.

These were the sorts of conditions that the free market offered workers who, without the law to protect them, were forced to bargain alone with their employers. Perhaps, in some narrow sense, these workers “agreed” to work countless hours among the roaches, the heat, and the raw sewage. But only a judge blinded by their own ideology could conclude that these workers had any real choice in the matter.

“Concerted activities”

By the mid 1930s, Congress understood what men like Peckham and Gorsuch refused to see. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains in her Epic Systemsdissenting opinion, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) on the premise that “employees must have the capacity to act collectively in order to match their employers’ clout in setting terms and conditions of employment.”

The law may not have the power to equalize bargaining power between workers and their bosses, but, by enabling those workers to join together, it could give them a fighting chance.

One provision of the NLRA — a provision that Gorsuch refused to honor in his Epic Systems opinion — 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.” Class actions are precisely this — a form of “concerted activity” that workers may use for their own “mutual aid or protection.”

The idea behind a class action is that multiple workers with the same legal claim against their employer can join together under a single lawsuit. Such concerted activity is necessary for the simple reason that litigation is often prohibitively expensive. As Ginsburg notes in her dissent, employers at one of the companies at issue in Epic Systems “would likely have to spend $200,000 to recover only $1,867.02 in overtime pay and an equivalent amount in liquidated damages.”

Only a truly fanatical worker — and one with very deep pockets — might be willing to spend such an exorbitant sum for such a small amount of money. The only real hope for such a worker is to join a class action lawsuit with colleagues who were also cheated out of their fair pay.

Except that workers will soon be unable to seek this remedy. An estimated “23.1% of nonunionized employees are now subject to express class-action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements,” according to Ginsburg’s dissent. Now that the Supreme Court has endorsed such illegal agreements, this number will skyrocket. Law firms are already lining up to show employers how to draft such agreements, and workers throughout the country will soon be left powerless against wage theft.

Twisted commerce

Gorsuch concludes his Epic Systems opinion with a flourish. “The policy may be debatable but the law is clear,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee claims. “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

As it turns out, Gorsuch is half correct. The law is, indeed, clear. It just doesn’t say what he wants it to say.

The contracts at issue in Epic Systems are “forced arbitration” contracts, meaning that they not only strip employees of their right to bring a class action, they also require employment disputes to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor employers more than real courts of law. Though a law known as the Federal Arbitration Act protects arbitration agreements in certain contexts, that very same law explicitly exempts employment contracts.

Nevertheless, in its 2001 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court wrote this safeguard for workers out of the law.

Circuit City turned on two interlocking provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act. The first provides that “A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” except under limited circumstances. The second exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

To understand the scope of these two provisions, it’s important to understand some of the history surrounding the Federal Arbitration Act, which was enacted in 1925.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the same period when the Court handed down Lochner — the Supreme Court also imposed strict limits on Congress’ constitutionally granted power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.” During this period, the Court defined the word “commerce” narrowly, to encompass little more than the transit of goods across state lines. Manufacture of goods to be sold, mining of raw materials, and the farming of commodities were all deemed to be beyond Congress’ power to regulate.

Among other things, the Court relied on this stingy definition of the word “commerce” to strike down a federal law banning the interstate sale of goods manufactured by child labor.

In the 1930s, a little more than a decade after the Federal Arbitration Act became law, the Supreme Court abandoned this narrow understanding of Congress’ power to regulate commerce. Under modern precedents, Congress’ power over “commerce” now includes broad authority to regulate economic matters of nearly all kinds.

Which brings us back to the text of the Federal Arbitration Act. When Congress wrote this law, it understood phrases like “a transaction involving commerce” or “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” to use the narrow, pre-New Deal understanding of the word “commerce.” As the law was originally understood, it only protected arbitration agreements involving the transit of goods for sale.

Contracts involving manufacture, mining, or agriculture were beyond the scope of Congress’ authority, according to the Supreme Court at the time, and therefore beyond the scope of the Arbitration Act. Similarly, when the Act exempts “seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” Congress sought to exempt all employment contracts that it believed that it had the power to regulate at the time.

Of course, the Arbitration Act could also be read anachronistically. If the modern definition of the word “commerce” is inserted into the law, that would mean that nearly all contracts are governed by the law, but all employment contracts are exempt. Thus, under either plausible reading of the statute, contracts between workers and their employers are exempt.

Circuit City, however, read the statute a third way. It reads the phrase “a transaction involving commerce” using the modern definition, while reading the phrase “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” using the 1925 definition. Thus, the policy favoring forced arbitration is given the broadest scope, while the exemption favoring workers is read exceedingly narrowly.

It’s a sick double-standard — the kind that should make anyone who reads the Court’s Circuit City opinion doubt the good faith of the justices in the majority.

Without Circuit City, there could not be a decision like Epic Systems. Gorsuch’s opinion builds upon Circuit City‘s holding that the word “commerce” can mean one thing in one provision of the law and something completely different in another provision of the same law. Circuit City is one of the Supreme Court’s greatest sins against the English language, and the text of the law itself is entirely at odds with Gorsuch’s claim in Epic Systems that “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

So the law, as Gorsuch condescendingly asserts, is indeed clear. The Federal Arbitration Act exempts all employment contracts, and any claim to the contrary requires the Court to turn a blind eye to history.

Which, of course, is exactly what Gorsuch did in Epic Systems. He ignored the way the law was originally understood, ignored the text of the National Labor Relations Act, ignored the law’s hard-won understanding that employees and employers do not have equal bargaining power, and ignored Congress’ explicit efforts to strike a different balance of power between workers and their bosses.

It is a great day for law firms that profit off the exploitation of workers. And it is an even greater day for their clients.

The rest of us can either sign away our rights or lose our jobs.

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.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Trump’s Justice Department Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Workers’ Rights 100 Years

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a trio of cases, captioned as NLRB v. Murphy Oil, that examined whether management commits an unfair labor practice when it requires employees to sign arbitration agreements that waive their right to wage class-action lawsuits. The question of whether an employee can give up her right to act in concert with other workers may seem technical, but it implicates the very core of collective action.

During the hearing, Trump’s Department of Justice clearly sided with employers, who are calling for significant cutbacks to workers’ rights to take collective action.

The significance of this case was evident throughout the oral arguments. On one side the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a University of Virginia Law Professor argued that the issue implicates the basic employment rights of tens of millions of U.S. workers. On the other side, the Principal Deputy U.S. Solicitor Jeff Wall (“Solicitor”) and an attorney for the companies argued that these are technical issues related to contract and civil procedure.

The case revolves around a key question: Do forced arbitration agreements that ban collective or class legal actions violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? That section permits employees “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The employers’ and Solicitor’s position is that Section 7 only protects workers’ rights to get to the “courthouse door.” According to the line of reasoning this side presented in the courtroom, the NLRA gives workers the right to act together at work, but the moment their workplace concerns get to a legal forum, they have no right to continue together. Once they enter the courtroom or arbitrator’s chambers, the argument went, all parties must abide by the rules of the forum, be it the NLRB, the federal courts or the arbitrator. They argued that this principle applies even if those rules require workers to proceed individually.

The problem, of course, is that there is a long history of employers using forced contracts to require employees to waive their rights as a condition of employment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked this history when she asked the attorney for the employers whether forced arbitration agreements are simply “yellow dog” contracts by another name. This was a reference to contracts where employees agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. (“Yellow dog” contracts were made illegal in the 1932 Norris LaGuardia Act.)

Justice Stephen Breyer put an even finer point on the matter when he expressed his concern that the employers’ position “is overturning labor law that goes back to, for [Franklin D. Roosevelt] at least, the entire heart of the New Deal.”

Nonetheless, the arguments of the management-side attorneys appeared to gain traction with conservative Justices. This iss despite the fact that the employers’ side consistently failed to address a key problem: the rules of the forum that they said everyone has to follow are not made by some neutral third party. They are written by the employer, who then makes participation in the forum a condition of employment for the employee to sign the agreement. Research shows that almost 25 million non-union workers have been forced to sign such arbitration agreements.

Yet, some Justices bought the management-side argument. At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who seemed to be the swing vote in this case, insisted that workers can still engage in collective action because they can simply go to the same attorney and ask her to represent them each individually.

Presumably, Justice Kennedy did not intend to imply that the attorney could share the details of each of the cases with each worker, because that would violate the confidentiality clause in many of these agreements. And presumably, he did not mean that the attorney could share confidential information, because then there would be no attorney-client privilege protection.

The employers’ counsel agreed with Justice Kennedy, and said that even though the confidentiality clause would prohibit the attorney from sharing information among the workers, it couldn’t “stop the same lawyer from thinking about the three cases in conjunction.” In Justice Kennedy’s words, “that is collective action.”

In reality, forced arbitration agreements that prohibit class or collective action have grown exponentially in recent years through a tactical decision by corporations to strip Americans of their rights to litigate their claims together. The NLRB responded in 2012 to the growing use of these forced arbitration agreements by finding that these agreements violate federal labor law.

The liberal Justices repeatedly demonstrated that this case is not about neutral rules of a forum, or technical issues of civil procedure, but about basic concepts of power.

Justice Ginsburg asked the Solicitor, “What about the reality? I think we have in one of these cases, in Ernst & Young, the individual claim is $1,800. To proceed alone in the arbitral forum will cost much more than any potential recovery for one. That’s why this is truly a situation where there is strength in numbers, and that was the core idea of the NLRA. There is strength in numbers. We have to protect the individual worker from being in a situation where he can’t protect his rights.”

Justice Ginsburg was making the point that if workers cannot bring class or collective actions, many who have low-dollar claims will be denied justice because it would be more expensive to bring their cases than they could possibly win.

The Solicitor’s response was telling. He claimed that the different arbitration agreements have different clauses, which deal with issues of costs and fees. In essence, he insisted, the contract takes care of those concerns. And, in the final analysis, the employers’ attorney and Solicitor explained that the contract—even if it is a forced contract—should trump any possible rights workers may have to bring their actions collectively.

In a sense, this position answered Justice Breyer’s initial question: Yes, this case does bring us back to a pre-New Deal framework, and the employers and Trump administration are comfortable with that.

This case is poised to have a far-reaching impact. When the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting consumer arbitration agreements that waive consumers’ rights to file a class action, such arbitration agreements ballooned. If the Court similarly holds that workers do not have a substantive right under the NLRA to vindicate their labor and employment rights collectively, then it is likely that soon almost every non-union worker will face even more limitations to real justice.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 4, 2017. 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.

If Trump Has His Way, You’ll Certainly Miss This Agency You Probably Don’t Even Know Exists

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

The Trump Administration has released its proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Who’s set to lose big if this budget comes to fruition? Women—specifically working women and their families.

The only federal agency devoted to women’s economic security—the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau—is on the chopping block. The agency, which currently has a budget of only $11 million (just one percent of the DoL’s total budget), would see a 76 percent cut in its funds for the next fiscal year under the proposed budget.

Despite making up only 1 percent of the Department’s current budget and having only a 50-person staff, the Bureau serves in several crucial roles—simultaneously conducting research, crafting policy and convening relevant stakeholders (from unions to small businesses) in meaningful discussions about how to best support working women. The Women’s Bureau’s priorities have changed with the times—focusing on working conditions for women in the 1920s and 30s, and helping to pass the monumental Equal Pay Act in the early 1960s. (President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, making pay discrimination on the basis of sex illegal. However, because of loopholes in the 54-year-old law, the wage gap persists.) Throughout its nearly 100-year history, however, the agency has remained a powerful advocate for working women and families. Recent efforts have included advocating for paid family leave, trying to make well-paying trades jobs available to women and supporting women veterans as they re-enter civilian life.

Eliminating or underfunding the Women’s Bureau would be a huge setback for working women across the nation. Take the issue of paid family leave, for example. In recent years, the Bureau awarded over $3 million in Paid Leave Analysis grants to cities and states interested in creating and growing their own paid leave programs while federal action stalls. With the funding provided by the Women’s Bureau, states and localities have developed comprehensive understandings of what their own paid leave programs might look like. In Vermont, where the Commission on the Status of Women received a Paid Leave Analysis grant in 2015, state lawmakers are now on track to pass a strong paid family leave policy.

So why is the Trump Administration considering cutting such a low-cost, high-impact agency? Some suspect it’s at the suggestion of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s 2017 budget proposal, which calls the Women’s Bureau “redundant” because “today, women make up half of the workforce.”

What this justification conveniently leaves out is that despite important gains in recent decades, too many women, particularly women of color, are still stuck in low-paying, undervalued jobs, being paid less than their male counterparts and taking on a disproportionate amount of unpaid labor at home. It also leaves out the fact that those previously-mentioned important gains are largely the result of targeted efforts led by government agencies like the Women’s Bureau. Eliminating the agencies responsible for immense strides in preserving civil rights is, to quote the brilliant Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Instead of punishing an agency for its accomplishments, the Trump Administration should give the Women’s Bureau the resources it needs to tackle the problems remaining for working women.

Donald Trump is happy to engage in shiny photo-ops and feel-good listening sessions about women’s empowerment, but when it comes to doing concrete work to support the one government agency tasked with supporting women’s economic empowerment, this administration is nowhere to be found. If this government actually cares about women at all—that is, cares about more than good press and tidy, Instagrammable quotes—it should step up to defend this agency and its 97-year history. The working women of America deserve better.

This blog was originally published by the Make it Work Campaign on June 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maitreyi Anantharaman is a policy and research intern for the Make it Work Campaign, a communications intern for Workplace Fairness and an undergraduate public policy student at the University of Michigan.

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