Supreme Court Case Threatens Workers’ Rights to Stand Up for Themselves

By Courtney Shaffer
Intern, USW Communications

The Supreme Court began its fall term with a case that could have a big impact on the ways workers can hold their employers legally accountable, potentially limiting their rights to file collective suits against employers who have committed crimes like discrimination or wage theft.

Currently some 10 million Americans, more than half of private-sector non-union workers, have been required to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, agreements that force workers into individual arbitration rather than collective suits, should one choose to sue their company for any reason. The Supreme Court, which began hearing testimony this month, will determine if these mandates are legal.

Employers love arbitration because it heavily favors them. They can divide workers, even when their experiences are similar, and they can bury systematic exploitation, forcing each worker to hire his or her own lawyer and make his or her individual case behind closed doors.  

For example, the current Supreme Court case, National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil, began when Murphy Oil routinely failed to compensate employees who worked before and after their scheduled shifts. After realizing they could not collectively sue Murphy Oil for stealing their overtime pay, the workers’ only option was to file claims individually in arbitration hearings.

Workers who are not bound to individual arbitration are 50 times more likely to sue their employer for lost wages and more than half of those cases are decided in favor of the workers, according to Alexander Colvin, an arbitration expert at Cornell University. In arbitration, only about 21 percent of workers win, and even if they do, they only receive about 20 percent of the money owed to them.

If private businesses can force employees to sign “class-action waivers,” then the idea of restricting employees could easily expand to jeopardize other workplace rights such as jointly asking for wage increases outside of a traditional union context.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg compared class-action waivers to yellow-dog contracts which banned any workers from forming labor unions before being banned in 1934. “There’s no true bargaining,” the Justice said, “It’s the employer saying ‘You want to work here you sign this.’”