Let Wronged Workers Join Together for Justice

 

Stanford, Calif. — In 1938, a 42-year-old autoworker named Florence St. John was angry about being paid less than men doing the same job on a General Motors assembly line in Lansing, Mich. Banding together with two dozen other women, she sued one of the world’s most powerful companies and — to the astonishment of all — won history’s first big damages award in a discrimination case.

Soon after her win hit the nation’s newspapers, legislative drives to enact “equal pay” laws spread rapidly to other states and Congress. But then came another surprise: Politically powerful unions quietly killed off bills that would have empowered women like St. John to bring class-action lawsuits challenging wage injustices. Litigation was too great a threat to labor’s control over workplace rules under the New Deal system of collective bargaining, union archives show.

St. John’s story might feel like dusty history, but it goes to the heart of three far-reaching cases that are scheduled to be argued on Monday at the Supreme Court. The question in these cases is whether workers are bound by company-imposed employment contracts requiring that they bring workplace complaints via arbitration rather than lawsuits, and that, further, they waive their right to bring these complaints in arbitration as class actions.

The cases are among the most watched this term, and for good reason. Arbitration agreements with class-action waivers threaten the rights of the least powerful in America. Estimates are that as many as half of companies impose such agreements. This matters because workplace disputes, particularly those involving low-wage workers, aren’t usually worth enough money for a single wronged worker to pay a lawyer or court or arbitration costs. But aggregated, they become viable. If workers can’t join together, they very likely can’t seek vindication at all. The alternative to collective arbitration is no arbitration.

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