Friday, March 19, 2021

Bruce on Epic Systems and Labor Legal History

Stephen Bruce, a Washington, D.C. attorney, has posted Epic Errors: The Supreme Court Ignores the History of Collective Actions and Decades of Struggle to Establish 'Living Wage' Standards:

If an employer can take away the right of “acting together” from its employees and force them to proceed only “individually” to enforce rights related to their wages and other terms and conditions of employment, the employer has interfered with or restrained the “collective power of individuals” that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 are all New Deal era statutes – all of which are still in force today – which provide for the right of employees to proceed collectively or in concert. These statutes were the culmination of decades of struggle in workplaces and communities, state and federal legislatures, and state and federal courtrooms. Each rests on detailed Congressional findings that individual employees do not “commonly” enjoy “actual liberty of contract” or “full freedom of association” and have an “inequality in bargaining power” vis a vis the employer, and that “collective” actions to resolve disputes over the terms and conditions of employment are in the interest of employees and the public. And while it is rarely noticed today, from 1923 to 1925, the Supreme Court issued three unanimous decisions on the unconstitutionality of “compulsory arbitration,” holding that compulsory arbitration implicates the due process and liberty of contract protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, except in temporary emergencies. See, e.g., Charles Wolff Packing Co. v. Court of Indus. Rel., 267 U.S. 552, 565-66 (1925).

In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612, 1624-25 (2018), a 5-4 majority opinion, written by the then-new Justice Neil Gorsuch, upheld compulsory arbitration agreements with “class action waivers” in three companion cases, even though the waivers clearly constituted unbargained-for restraints on the collective enforcement action provided in Section 16(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. All of the cases involved the right to receive overtime pay, which applies even when employees earn more than the minimum wage. In upholding the class/collective action waivers, the majority opinion in Epic displayed a near total ignorance of class and representative actions in “the old, nearly forgotten world before 1966," Elizabeth K. Spahn, “Resurrecting the Spurious Class,” 71 Geo. L.J. 119, 120 (1982). It also displayed a woeful ignorance of the history of the use of “liberty of contract” theories to block the enforcement of wage and hour standards, and Congress’ rejection of those theories in the legislative findings and declarations of policies of the New Deal legislation.
--Dan Ernst