Karl Marx once said, “Workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” But thanks to a Supreme Court decision that took place last week, this may no longer be entirely true.
For the first time, the Court ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that private-sector, nonunion employees are not allowed to band together to sue their employer. In other words: imagine that your employer has violated federal labor laws by paying you less than minimum wage or engaging in sexual harassment. You speak with some of your coworkers and realize that the same thing has been happening to them, too. According to the Court’s recent decision, you would not be allowed to band together with your coworkers to sue your employer. Rather, each of you would have to bring your own personal class action suit–which means you would also have to shoulder the legal fees all by yourself.
Here’s what happened. Nonunion employees from three different companies–Ernst & Young LLP, Epic Systems Corp., and Murphy Oil USA Inc.–all faced the same problem. When they signed on to work for the company, they had to agree to never join a class action lawsuit against the company. In essence, this meant that by agreeing to work for one of these companies, potential employees had to waive their right to use the court system. Instead, they were required by law to use individual arbitration, which means using a “neutral” third party to settle disputes outside of the courts. In many cases, however, the amount of money employers were suing for (such as missing overtime wages) amounted to only a few thousand dollars, while the arbitration fees could often be in the six figures. They decided to band together with other employees with similar complaints so that everyone could share the fee burden. Another reason that employees often wish to band together is because they may fear their employers’ retribution–in other words, they’re hoping for “safety in numbers.” Now, however, the Supreme Court has ruled this practice unconstitutional.
It’s complicated, and the answer goes back to two laws passed nearly a century ago. The first is the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act, which bars collective legal action by private employees against their employer, and instead requires arbitration through a neutral third party outside of the Court system. Ten years later, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act was passed, which protected workers by allowing them the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining. In last week’s case, the employees argued that the National Labor Relations Act protected their right to collective bargaining–including banding together to bring a lawsuit against their employers. But the Court disagreed. According to the majority, there was nothing in the National Labor Relations Act that undid the provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act, which meant that the terms of the FAA still stand.
This ruling will likely have a devastating effect on labor. Employees will be less likely to sue their employers because of the immense legal costs and the possibility that their employers will retaliate against them. This also means that instances of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, or sexual identification will be less likely to be reported out of fear. Thanks to this ruling, tens of millions of private-sector, nonunion employees who want to sue their employers will be at risk of losing much more than their chains.