A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Supreme Court 5-4 Ruling on Workers’ Rights

On May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving the rights of private sector employees in the favor of the companies. This ruling prohibits workers from taking collective action over workplace issues. This means that workers are now not allowed to band together and challenge violations of federal labor laws. With the court’s conservative judges in the majority, the vote was 5 to 4, marking a close battle between the two sides. While the outcome does not affect people in labor unions, nearly 25 million employees who work under contracts will have that freedom taken away from them.


Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is writing for the majority, has said that the contracts, in fact, were valid under attribution law. He states that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act overrules the National Labor Relations Act and that employees who sign employment agreements to arbitrate claims must do so on an individual basis. However, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the four dissenters, called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” She said the 1925 arbitration law came well before federal labor laws and should not cover these “arm-twisted,” “take-it-or-leave it” provisions that employers are now insisting on. Her stance is more based on the minority side, and she uses morality as one of her main points. She noted that workers’ claims are usually small, and many workers fear retaliation from their employers, including the risk of losing their jobs. For these reasons, she said, relatively few workers are willing to choose the arbitration option. On the other hand, these problems can be solved by a class-action suit brought in court on behalf of many employees.


There is also some negative backlash for movement groups. Labor law experts have stated that last Monday’s decision very likely will present increasing problems for the #MeToo movement, as well for other civil rights class actions claiming discrimination based on race, gender and religion. Solo claims are often pushed aside and not addressed, and the only way to gain attention from these big corporations is the workers coming together as one. As Ginsburg put it, “there’s safety in numbers.”


This new ruling is causing an uproar, and there have been many new smaller court cases concerning this issue. Due to the nature of prohibiting mass criticisms, there are many negative implications from this decision, especially for oppressed and minority groups. However, we can only wait and see if this court decision is justified, and how long it is going to stay.