When you sign a job contract, read the fine print: If it contains a mandatory-arbitration clause, you’re likely signing away your rights, too. In a decision last month that will have widespread ramifications, the Supreme Court basically barred workers nationwide from launching class-action lawsuits against employers. In the ruling in the case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, five justices made it that much harder for workers to collectively seek justice in court against employers’ abuses at work.
For an individual worker, the ruling would channel a typical workplace grievance—even one dealing with major questions of civil and labor rights—into an individual mandatory-arbitration process, effectively controlled by the employer. These mandatory-arbitration procedures are just like a regular court…except that the judge is your boss and the jury is stacked with corporate attorneys. With virtually no rules on transparency or discovery, your rights are compromised before the “trial” begins.
The class action, on the other hand, is one of the key legal mechanisms workers have to raise their collective voice on issues of wage theft, discrimination, sexual abuse, and other rights violations at work. Even those not in a union can join a broad, self-defined class of plaintiffs sharing a grievance (like a warehouse that pays all workers below minimum wage, or a supervisor known to target women workers for sexual harassment). Class-action suits have been an extremely effective mechanism for seeking justice for violations ranging from unsafe working conditions to racially biased hiring.
According to Celine McNicholas, director of labor law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the majority ruling, which takes an extremely pro-business reading of employment law, is “striking at the heart of workers’ ability to act collectively, which makes it all the more difficult for them to access not only wage-and-hour protections but, obviously, discrimination protections across the board.”
In the Epic Systems ruling, nothing less than the enforcement of civil-rights law at work is at stake. In 2001, a landmark sex-discrimination case brought by Walmart workers went to the Supreme Court, which determined that Walmart had systematically discriminated against 1.6 million women workers by paying them at a lower scale than male coworkers. Thanks to their certification as a legal class, the women won an historic settlement and changed the company’s policies against gender discrimination. But since then, various changes to court procedures and now the added final blow of Epic Systems have built a brick wall around giant employers like Walmart. In the future, big-box retailers might be shielded from lawsuits by workers bringing wage-and-hour claims on a big-box scale.