Workers should pay attention to news that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been wined and dined by a billionaire businessman for years without disclosures, while Justice Neil Gorsuch sold property to a law firm executive who has been involved in numerous cases before the court. It will come as no surprise that justices receiving lavish gifts are going to side with the interests of their wealthy benefactors when a case comes before them involving business interests versus workers’ rights.
We can all hope the law will prevail, and that some of the moves to install new codes of ethics can restore some of the integrity of the court, but the Republican-appointed justices’ track record is dismal when it comes to empowering workers.
The Supreme Court has played an important role in the decades-long campaign to erode workers’ rights in this country. In particular, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that have undermined everything from workers’ rights to form unions, the ability to build strong unions, and health and safety on the job. This term, the Supreme Court once again sided with corporations in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters to make it easier for employers to sue unions over their decision to strike.
Beyond Glacier, here’s a rundown of several key decisions that hurt workers just in the last few years:
Corporate America had been trying to push employees into arbitration to settle workplace disputes or labor violations, instead of allowing them to exercise their right to take legal action against the boss, either individually or as a class action suit.
This idea that employees and employers have equal power has been the leaning of the conservatives on the court. In a 5–4 decision, the court sided with the corporation in the 2018 Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis case, claiming workers could get a fair shot at hammering out disputes in arbitration. Under the Supreme Court decision, contractual provisions for individualized arbitration proceedings must be enforced, despite workplace arbitration agreements often being a condition of employment. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the idea that employers can force workers to give up their rights in court in order to retain their jobs violates the basic premise of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and ignores the unequal power between employers and employees.
Janus v. AFSCME was a notorious case that corporate-backed, right-wing legal foundations supported all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that public-sector employees would no longer be required to pay union dues if they decided not to become union members. In a 5–4 decision, the court overturned 41 years of labor law precedent that made clear that all workers represented by a union benefit from the union’s efforts to negotiate for better working conditions and, as a result, should be required to pay dues.
Our research found that the Janus decision was expected to have significant impacts on public-sector workers’ wages and job quality as well as on the critical public services these workers provide.
Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid was a case involving an employer challenge to a California regulation that allows union representatives to visit the property of agricultural employers—in limited circumstances—to carry out efforts to organize the hundreds of thousands of California farmworkers who work in hazardous and low-paying jobs and who suffer high rates of wage and hour violations.
In a 6–3 decision, the court’s conservative justices ruled that the California regulation constitutes a per se physical taking of the employer’s property, which in practical terms means union organizers will no longer have the right to access the farms where farmworkers are employed. This will have devastating impacts because farmworkers are often difficult to reach since they work in remote locations and in many cases reside in housing that is owned and controlled by employers, so access to their workplaces is critical to organizing efforts. In addition, most farmworkers are immigrants, and a majority of them either lack an immigration status or have a precarious and temporary immigration status that their employers control, making it nearly impossible in practice for them to assert their workplace rights or to seek out unions and worker rights organizations.
The Supreme Court’s decision means that the already difficult task of organizing farmworkers will be even harder now for unions, and there could be additional impacts beyond labor organizing.
Looking ahead, there needs to be a movement to implement enforceable ethical standards for Supreme Court justices, who should not be allowed to accept lavish tropical vacations or tuition payments or any other pricey swag that business moguls shower them with, or else we risk further weakening of worker protections in this country.
While it may be theoretically possible that a justice could receive such gifts and not have it impact their view of a specific case, it is unrealistic to believe that it won’t, and it creates a blatant appearance of impropriety. Any reasonable person would have to assume that such gifts would influence the decision of a justice, who is supposed to be an impartial public servant. Establishing meaningful ethical standards is particularly important now, given that a host of cases will soon be coming before the court that could further gut worker protections that were put in place to empower workers.
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