Economic Policy Institute
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on May 21 handed down a 5-4 decision in Epic Systems Corp. v Lewis that deals a significant blow to the fundamental right of workers in this country to join together to address workplace disputes.
For over 80 years, the National Labor Relations Act has guaranteed workers’ right to stand together for “mutual aid and protection” when seeking to improve their wages and working conditions. However, the Supreme Court decision clears the way for employers to require workers to waive that right as a condition of employment.
The use of mandatory arbitration and collective and class action waivers—under which workers are forced to handle workplace disputes as individuals through arbitration, rather than being able to resolve these matters together in court—makes it more difficult for workers to enforce their rights.
These agreements bar access to the courts for all types of employment-related claims, including those based on the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act. This means that a worker who is not paid fairly, discriminated against, or sexually harassed, is forced into a process that overwhelmingly favors the employer—and forced to manage this process alone, even though these issues are rarely confined to one single worker.
Today’s decision undermines the National Labor Relations Act and further erodes workers’ rights and freedoms. Workers depend on collective and class actions to combat race and sex discrimination and enforce wage and hour standards. It is essential to both our democracy and a fair economy that workers have the right to engage in collective action. Congress must act to restore this fundamental right and ban mandatory arbitration agreements and class and collective action waivers.
The New York Times said writing for the majority, "Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, 'the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and
inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.'"
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented strongly, saying the case will lead to "huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.”
Said AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka: "Today, five justices on the Supreme Court decided that it is acceptable for working people to have our legal rights taken away by corporations in order to keep our jobs. This decision forcing workers to sign away the right to file class-action suits against such illegal employment practices as wage theft, sexual harassment and discrimination
is outrageous—and it is wrong.
"In this case, the newest justice has joined the dangerous trend of this court to side with corporations over working people. We call upon Congress to immediately enact legislation making clear that no worker can be forced to give up their right to effectively challenge illegal conduct in the workplace in order to keep their job."