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Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’

Stop Calling It an Arbitration Agreement—Employers Are Forcing Workers to Give Up Their Rights

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Trump-appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch begins his decision for the majority in Epic Systems v. Lewis, the landmark arbitration case decided Monday at the Supreme Court, with a simple set of questions: “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration? Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?” Justice Gorsuch and the rest of the five-Justice conservative majority answered the first question in the affirmative and the second question in the negative. In so doing, the Supreme Court has ushered in a future where almost all non-union private sector workers—nearly 94 percent of the private sector workforce—will be barred from joining together to litigate most workplace issues, including wage theft, sexual harassment and discrimination.

The decision incorrectly holds that because the Federal Arbitration Act requires courts to treat arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts, the National Labor Relations Act, which explicitly protects workers who engage in concerted activity for mutual aid or benefit, does not protect workers’ rights to litigate claims at work. But the problem with the ruling goes much further: The entire decision is premised upon a massive fiction: that these arbitration agreements, wherein the worker loses all access to court to bring a collective action with her fellow workers, are the result of an agreement between the workers and the employer. In reality, arbitration agreements are mandatory rules imposed unilaterally by the employer—not two-sided agreements.

On April 2, 2014, Jacob Lewis, who was a technical writer for Epic Systems, received an email from his employer with a document titled “Mutual Arbitration Agreement Regarding Wages and Hours.” The document stated that the employee and the employer waive their rights to go to court and instead agreed to take all wage and hour claims to arbitration. Furthermore, unlike in court, the employee agreed that any arbitration would be one-on-one. This “agreement” did not provide any opportunity to negotiate, and it had no place to sign or refuse to sign. Instead, it stated, “I understand that if I continue to work at Epic, I will be deemed to have accepted this Agreement.” The workers had two choices: immediately quit or accept the agreement. This is not the hallmark of an agreement; it is the hallmark of a mandatory rule that is unilaterally imposed.

When Lewis tried to take Epic Systems to court for misclassifying him and his fellow workers as independent contractors and depriving them of overtime pay, he realized that by opening the email and continuing to work, he waved his right to bring a collective action or go to court. It is estimated that approximately 60 million Americans have already been forced to sign such individual arbitration agreements, and with Monday’s decision, they are certain to spread rapidly.

From the opening questions of the decision to the subsequent analysis, Justice Gorsuch and the conservative majority completely paper over the forced nature of these “agreements.” Gorsuch describes the facts of this case thusly: “The parties before us contracted for arbitration. They proceeded to specify the rules that would govern their arbitrations, indicating their intention to use individualized rather than class or collective action procedures.” In addressing why it is necessary to honor the waiver of class or collective action, he writes, “Not only did Congress require courts to respect and enforce agreements to arbitrate; it also specifically directed them to respect and enforce the parties’ chosen arbitration procedures.”

But the workers in this case had no meaningful input or opportunity to negotiate the issue of arbitration. Describing the worker’s decision to open an email and not quit his job immediately in this manner is at best delusional and at worst deceitful.

The entire structure of the Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence on arbitration agreements and class-action waivers is built on the idea that it is proper, appropriate and preferred for those in power to force others to waive their rights. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1925, Congress passed the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which sought to address the animosity some judges had towards arbitration, by requiring judges to treat arbitration agreements like other contracts. A 2015 Economic Policy Institute report describes the FAA as something that was  originally intended to be applied “to a narrow set of cases—commercial cases involving federal law that were brought in federal courts on an independent federal ground.” In essence, the FAA was designed so that businesses that negotiate contracts with each other can choose have their claims heard by an arbitrator of their choosing. “But,” the report explains, “in the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the FAA upside-down through a series of surprising decisions. These decisions set in motion a major overhaul of the civil justice system. It is no exaggeration to call the Supreme Court’s arbitration decisions in the 1980s the hidden revolution of the Reagan Court.”

The modern case that opened the door to the flood of arbitration agreements was a 2011 Supreme Court case involving a couple that wanted to bring a consumer class action against AT&T to challenge a practice where cell phone companies offered “free” phones, but then charged customers the sales tax on the full value of the phones. Justice Scalia, writing for the five-Justice majority, treated the cell phone contract as something negotiated by the parties. He extolls the virtues of allowing these types of agreements because “affording parties discretion in designing arbitration processes is to allow for efficient, streamlined procedures tailored to the type of dispute.” Scalia finds no issue with the fact that only one party here had power, and that it can be said with certainty that in the history of the world, no one has ever negotiated a cell phone contract with a carrier.

Now, to engage in most activities, from signing on to social media to buying a phone or airline ticket to putting a relative in a nursing home, one is provided a forced contract with an individual arbitration clause hiding inside. After Monday’s decision, it will be unlikely that many will be able to accept or remain at their jobs in the private sector without similarly waiving their right to go to court or act collectively to redress their rights.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on May 23, 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.

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.

The Supreme Court’s Latest Anti-Worker Decision Deals a Major Blow to the #MeToo Movement

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

After months of sustained public pressure targeting sexual harassment in workplaces across the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday significantly undermined the power of workers to collectively challenge discrimination and abuse at the hands of their employers. In a 5-4 decision on the Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis casethe Court ruled that private-sector employees do not have the right to enter into class-action lawsuits to challenge violations of federal labor laws.

“[T]he Supreme Court has taken away a powerful tool for women to fight discrimination at work,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, in a press statement. “Instead of banding together with coworkers to push back against sexual harassment, pay discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, wage theft and more, employees may now be forced behind closed doors into an individual, costly—and often secret—arbitration process. This will stack the deck in favor of the employer.”

The case concerns tens of thousands of employees at three companies—Epic Systems Corp., Ernst & Young LLP and Murphy Oil USA Inc.—who were forced to sign away their right to join class-action lawsuits against their employers as a precondition to being hired.

The workers argued that their right to file class-action lawsuits over alleged wage and hours violations is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was passed in 1935 to offer employees greater leverage to collectively challenge unjust treatment on the job. But, echoing the employers’ arguments, Justice Neil Gorsuch—who was appointed by Trump—wrote in the majority opinion that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act supersedes the NLRA.

The ruling means that workers do not have the right to take bosses to court over alleged violations of federal labor laws. It also means bosses can force workers to arbitrate complaints individually instead of collectively, which overwhelmingly slants in favor of employers. This ruling is poised to impact a large swath of the U.S. workforce, where 41 percent of private-sector employees have already signed away their right to class-action legislation.

These workers include those who are pushing against wage and hour violations, as well as fighting patterns of racism, sexism and other forms of harassment in the workplace. Workers’ rights advocates say they are concerned that the ruling could potentially be detrimental to the #MeToo movement, which has relied on power in numbers to confront sexual assault in workplaces from Hollywood to tomato fields. Some warn that, for those facing sexual harassment in the workplace, the choice between employer-controlled arbitration or continuing on in silence is a choice between two bad options.

“#MeToo has shown us that the abuse of power is not one ‘rotten apple in a barrel’: It is widespread and systemic, especially in low-wage industries,” Palak Shah, social innovations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told In These Times. “We need checks on power—like collective action—to counter abuses of power when they happen. While unchecked power imbalances exist between employers and workers, we can be sure abuses like sexual harassment will continue.”

Arbitration is often kept secret and, employees frequently foot the bill for the arbitration process. Experts warn that this secrecy would protect employers responsible for harmful work environments by not allowing space for workers to collectively address widespread patterns of harassment.

“In the case of sexual harassment, say there was a group of employees who claimed that they’d been sexually harassed, they can’t proceed together. They’d have to go individually [to arbitration] and they can’t go to court,” Alexander Colvin, a labor relations scholar at Cornell University, told In These Times.

According to Graves, the stakes are “particularly high” for women who “often face discrimination that is difficult to detect, like pay discrimination, or suffer from sexual harassment and face retaliation for reporting it.”

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the 1925 law exemplified a different age for labor relations, and that employees should not be forced into “take-it-or-leave-it” agreements in order to find gainful employment.

The case is one of several currently being considered by the Supreme Court that could severely undermine workers’ rights. Much like the pending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which could prevent unions from collecting union dues from non-union members, it furthers the ongoing anti-worker agenda pushed by the Trump administration.

“As mandatory arbitration is forced on growing numbers of employees as a condition of employment,” Graves added, “the Supreme Court should strengthen rather than undermine the rights of workers to challenge insidious and often widespread civil rights violations.”

 About the Authors: Rima Parikh is a summer 2018 editorial intern at In These Times and an incoming MSJ candidate at Northwestern University. Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and In These Times editorial intern. They’re also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The Freedom to Join

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court will make a decision in the coming weeks whether or not to undermine the freedom of millions of teachers, nurses and other public workers to have strong unions. Today, the AFL-CIO has launched a new website, FreedomToJoin.org, that provides critical information about the Janus v. AFSCME case, counters misinformation, explains the value of union membership and draws attention to the wave of collective action in America.

Big-moneyed corporate interests have brought Janus v. AFSCME forward because they understand how working people in unions can negotiate a fair return on our work.

While its focused on public employees, Janus is part of a multipronged attack on our institutions and values we hold dear.

Right-wing corporations have tried to crush public unions for decades, and they’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into this case alone in an effort to slash pay and cut benefits for nurses, EMS workers, 911 dispatchers, security personnel and others who keep our communities clean and safe and provide other essential public services.

Yet even in the face of these attacks, all over the country workers are organizing and striking as we haven’t seen in years.

America is waking up to the benefits of unionism, and we’ll continue to organize and mobilize, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars

The Supreme Court hits pause on gay and lesbian rights

Monday, December 11th, 2017

For the second time in a week, the Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it may no longer be a friendly place for victims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Court announced Monday that it will not hear Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, a surprising decision given that the question presented in Evans — whether existing law banning discrimination “because of … sex” encompasses discrimination based on sexual orientation — is a subject of disagreement among federal appeals courts.

According to the Court’s own rules, the justices are especially likely to hear cases where “a United States court of appeals has entered a decision in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter.” Maintaining the uniformity of federal law is one of the primary functions of the Supreme Court.

As a general rule, it is dangerous to overread the significance of the Court’s decision not to hear a particular case. Such denials of review are not decisions on the merits, and can sometimes reflect a quirky problem with an individual case — not that the justices are uninterested in resolving the issue presented by that case.

But the Court’s non-decision in Evans follows last week’s surprising oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where Justice Anthony Kennedy — the author of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision — appeared unwilling to let the law treat homophobia as an evil akin to racism, sexism, or other forms of invidious discrimination.

Taken together, the two events suggest that Kennedy, who believes that all people have a fundamental right to marry, is not particularly interested in abolishing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation writ large. Without Kennedy, moreover, the project of equality for the LGBTQ community is dead in the water at the Supreme Court.

A year-and-a-half ago, Kennedy’s marriage equality opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges seemed to suggest that gay rights litigators still had many significant victories ahead of themObergefell described sexual orientation as an “immutable nature.” And it highlighted the long history of harsh discrimination against people with same-sex attractions both by the government and private actors.

This language in the Obergefell opinion seemed significant because past Supreme Court decisions established that when a group has historically faced discrimination that bears “no relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” and especially when they face such discrimination because of an “immutable” trait that they cannot control, any law which discriminates against that group must be treated with a great deal of constitutional skepticism.

A major purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment is to eradicate institutionalized racism and government discrimination that is similar in character to racism, and Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion strongly signaled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation meets this test.

Perhaps emboldened by these signals in Obergefell, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held last April that the existing ban on sex discrimination by employers prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In an 8-3 decision joined by several Republican-appointed judges, the Seventh Circuit explained in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College that discrimination against a lesbian employee is itself a form of sex discrimination. Being a woman attracted to women “represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype.”

On the day Hively was handed down, there was good reason to believe that the Supreme Court would follow the Seventh Circuit’s lead. Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell suggested that he believes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is both morally and legally similar to sexism. And eliminating private discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees was the next logical step for LGBTQ rights litigators after their victory for marriage equality.

Now, however, that project is stalled. The Supreme Court’s decision not to take the Evans case leaves Hively in place, but it also leaves in place decisions in several other federal judicial circuits holding that it is perfectly legal to fire someone because they are gay. Kennedy’s questions in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, moreover, suggest that he may even be willing to roll back existing protections for such workers.

At last Tuesday’s oral argument, Kennedy was outraged by a Colorado state commissioner who said — accurately — that “freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history.” He also accused the state of not being “tolerant” or “respectful” of the religious beliefs of a baker who refused to serve a same-sex couple in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.

Kennedy, in other words, appeared to think that laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation must bend to the will of people who claim a religious justification for their prejudices — or, at least, that state officials who wish to enforce these laws must walk on eggshells to avoid offending people on the religious right.

Rather than extending civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, and bisexual workers throughout the country, Kennedy now appears more likely to roll back existing protections in states that already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The momentum towards equality is currently paused, but it may soon move in reverse.

This article was originally published by Ian Millhiser on December 11, 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.

Dodd-Frank Court Case Could Redefine Whistleblowing

Monday, December 4th, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling a case with major implications for would-be whistleblowers. At issue is fuzzy language in the whistleblower protections of the Dodd-Frank Act. At stake is the fate of people like Paul Somers, who was fired after he reported wrongdoing, and anyone who might blow the whistle in the future.

The decision could literally redefine who is a federal whistleblower. The wording in Dodd-Frank – under a strict interpretation – appears to protect only those who report illegal activity directly to the SEC. Had Somers done so, the law would protect him from retaliation. By reporting to his employer instead of the SEC, he may be out of luck.

Blowing the whistle or just whistling Dixie?

The case is Digital Realty Trust v. Somers. Paul Somers, an executive of a real estate investment trust, went up the chain of command with evidence of securities violations. After he was fired, Somers sued for retaliation under the whistleblower provisions of Dodd-Frank. The language in Dodd-Frank defines whistleblower as someone who “provides information relating to a violation of the securities laws” to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Does that mean workers are not protected when  employers take the slash-and-burn approach to prevent the wrongdoing from filtering up to the SEC?

Some justices felt the law is clear, or cannot be interpreted more broadly. Other justices doubted that Congress intended to punish whistleblowers who first went to their employers.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act specifically protects employees who report wrongdoing internally, whether or not they report it to the SEC. The Court’s Dodd-Frank decision could essentially nullify the whistleblower protections of Sarbanes-Oxley. That would kick it back to a Congress that is unlikely to rewrite the law favorably for employees. The Trump administration has been friendly to whistleblowers who report government waste and fraud, but hostile to other forms of whistleblowing.

Could the Supreme Court kill whistleblowing?

If the Court sides with Digital Realty, it will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers. Even with anti-retaliation protection (and the possibility of a qui tam lawsuit), reporting fraud or abuses is a risky venture. If the Court removes the protections of Dodd-Frank, such heroes are on their own. Many will simply stay silent.

It could also be a Pyrrhic victory for companies accused of wrongdoing. If Dodd-Frank is interpreted narrowly, more whistleblowers will go straight to the SEC, allowing employers no opportunity to mitigate or do the right thing before the feds come down on them.

This blog was originally published at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on December 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

Billionaire Trump donor puts 115 people out of work after some joined a union

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Last week, writers at the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist joined a union. This week, the sites’ Trump-supporting billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, shut them down, putting 115 people out of work.

Ricketts, who deleted negative coverage of himself when he acquired the Gothamist properties in March, has threatened to shut down the site in the past if the writers attempted to unionize.

On Thursday, he made good on the promise. […]

According to the National Labor Relations Board, laying off employees because they are engaged in union activity is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that shutting down an entire business — like Ricketts chose to do Thursday — is one permissible form of retaliation.

Ricketts’ letter announcing the decision said that “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” but the New York Times reports that Ricketts “lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence.” It was only after workers dared to organize that he shut it down.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

The case ended in a 4-4 deadlock in March 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who had appeared poised to vote against the unions’ interests.

Much like Friedrichs, the Janus case has rocketed through the federal courts. The National Right to Work Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in early June. All briefs will likely be submitted by mid-January 2018, meaning SCOTUS could hold hearings almost exactly a year to the date that the Court last heard the same arguments.

The defendants may argue for procedural delays, which could potentially kick the decision into the following court term in 2018-2019. And it’s possible that in the meantime Justice Anthony Kennedy could die of a heart attack, or Sam Alito could forget to look both ways while crossing First St. and get run over by a bus. And the Democrats might take back the Senate next year, preventing the Trump administration from naming any more conservatives to the Court.

That’s the kind of magical thinking we’re left with, because the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is clearly determined to tilt the power of the country in favor of big business and against unions for at least a generation, and they care little about how just or fair their decisions appear to the public.

“Right to work” laws, currently on the books in 27 states, strip the requirement that union members pay union dues. Unions claim this creates a “free rider” problem, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without contributing a dime. This deprives unions of crucial funding, but also—and this is no small consideration for the right-wing—every union family that drops their membership becomes one less door that union members can knock come election season.

Most national unions have been preparing for this eventuality since the first time the Roberts court took up the issue of public sector union fees in 2014’s Harris Vs. Quinncase. (If you’re keeping score, yes, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have spent three years in a row trying to break the backs of unions).

Much of this preparation has focused on making sure that unions have a shop steward in every department and that every new hire is asked by a living breathing human being to actually join the union. But, as I wrote earlier this month, the bigger threat once workers have the right to evade union fees is the direct mail and phone-banking campaign that is already being run by Koch Brother-funded “think tanks” to encourage workers to drop their union membership and “give yourself a raise.”

As I wrote then, “The slick ‘give yourself a raise’ pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. … But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.”

There is a certain irony in conservatives applying the First Amendment to collective bargaining, a principle that conservative jurists have studiously avoided for two centuries. If every interaction that a union has with the government is a matter of speech, then we have a stronger argument for instituting a Bill of Rights for labor to protect workers and their right to demand fair treatment on the job.

Unions are already oppressively regulated. They are told by the National Labor Relations Board whom they can picket, when they may march and what they might say on a flyer. And they face steep fines if they disobey. Workers are forced to attend endless hours of anti-union presentations before a union election with no right to respond or boycott.

If every interaction the government has with a union is a matter of political speech—as a ruling in favor of Janus would imply—unions must respond by forcefully arguing that the rules of the system have been unfairly holding workers back, violating of our rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

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.

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