Less than one hour into the new Supreme Court term, which began on Monday, one of the Court’s embattled liberals warned that workplace protections that stretch back to the New Deal are in danger.
With Neil Gorsuch, the man who occupies a seat that Republicans held open for more than a year in the hopes that Donald Trump would get to fill it, now beginning his first full term, the Court’s Republican majority appears emboldened. Last week, the Court announced that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a suit seeking to sabotage public-sector unions. Then it opened the term with three consolidated cases, all of which are likely to give employers a license to engage in many forms of wage theft.
And looming over the entire term is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a discrimination case with profound implications for workplace civil-rights laws.
Justice Stephen Breyer’s warning about New Deal–era protections coming under fire came in the consolidated cases, National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Ernst & Young v. Morris, and Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis, which together will decide whether an employer can force their workers to sign away their right to join a class-action lawsuit.
Class actions are important because they are often the only way to prevent small-bore wage theft that targets a wide swath of workers.
Consider, for example, an employer who illegally takes a few hundred dollars from each of its thousands of employees. If every worker has to file an individual suit to recover this money, it is likely that very few of them will do so. The cost of hiring a lawyer to litigate the case will massively exceed the amount each worker can hope to collect.
A class action fixes this problem by allowing the thousands of workers to join together under a single lawsuit. Together, their claims may be worth millions of dollars. That’s enough to attract a lawyer who will work on a contingency basis—meaning that they will be paid a percentage of any money they collect for their clients.
With the right to bring a class action, in other words, the employer faces a consequence if it takes millions of dollars from its employees. Without that right, the employer can do what it pleases so long as it spreads the pain across many workers.
Janus, meanwhile, seeks to starve many public-sector unions of the funding they need to operate.