By Chris Fry
On June 1, the Supreme Court made another decision eroding the rights of workers to struggle for better pay and working conditions.
“Another” is the appropriate word because the Supreme Court, of the three branches of the federal government, is historically the most right-wing, the most pro-business, the most anti-worker and anti-oppressed. It has many past decisions to show this.
That is because it is the most insulated from the masses. Its members are appointed, not elected. Each member’s tenure is for her or his lifetime. And, as we can see from the recent scandals of expensive “gifts” to Justices Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito, its ethical standards are “the best that money can buy.”
Working class history: A precedent is set
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the working class, organized and mobilized by strong socialist and communist organizations and union activists, waged huge organizing drives and strikes among the suffering workers.
The bosses used state and local courts to stop those drives by issuing injunctions, giving factory owners the power to use cops and vigilante gangs, like Ford’s infamous “service department” under Harry Bennett, to attack union organizers.
In 1935 as part of Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, under pressure from the organized masses of employed and unemployed workers, Congress passed the Wagner Act. This law established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency. The law states that unions as well as their company foes must go to the NLRB to judge whether an action by either side was inside or outside the scope of a “legal” activity, and only after that could the winning side go to court. Sections 7 and 8 of this law refer to organizing and strike activities which are “legal”.
In 1959, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of unions in the Garmon case on this issue:
When an activity is arguably subject to § 7 or § 8 of the Act, the States as well as the federal courts must defer to the exclusive competence of the National Labor Relations Board if the danger of state interference with national policy is to be averted.
Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174
In August 2017 contract negotiations between the Glacier Northwest Cement Company in Washington state and truck drivers represented by Teamsters Local 174 broke down. The workers authorized a strike and notified the company. On August 19, the workers brought back to the plant the fully loaded cement trucks, declared themselves on strike, and left the trucks’ storage drums turning so as to prevent the concrete from hardening and damaging the vehicles. They then began picketing the plant.
Non-union workers emptied the cement before any damage occurred to the trucks.
The company said the union violated labor law by “destroying company property”, namely the concrete. But instead of following federal law on this kind of issue and complaining to the NLRB, they filed a lawsuit against the union in state court, directly contrary to the federal law.
Washington state’s local and appeals courts ruled in favor of the company, but the state’s Supreme Court, citing Garman, ruled against the company, saying that the company must first obtain the judgment of the NLRB. So the company, backed up by an army of corporate lawyers and business groups, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, who on June 1 ruled in their favor, 8 justices agreeing to 1 opposed, that being the newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson. As a New York Times June 1 article reported:
Justice Jackson noted in her dissent that the labor board had issued its own complaint since the case was first filed in Washington State. In issuing its complaint, the labor board’s general counsel found that the strike activity was in fact protected. This by definition meant that the activity was “arguably protected,” Justice Jackson wrote, requiring the state court to stand down.
In the near term, unions that are contemplating strikes or already striking, such as unions representing Hollywood writers or United Parcel Service employees whose contract expires this summer, may have to take greater precautions to insulate themselves from legal liability.
Such precautions will typically weaken the impact of strikes, said Ms. Garden, the University of Minnesota professor. “You could get unions prophylactically adopting less effective tactics — things like giving advance warning about strike, which gives the employer a lot more time to hire replacement workers, [scabs]” she said.
Other unions may simply decide not to strike at all out of fear of heightened legal exposure, she said.
Just like in the anti-abortion Dobbs decision, a long-standing precedent, this time dating back 64 years, was broken to satisfy the right-wing pro-business interests,
Roberts court sides with Big Business
Of course, this is not the first anti-worker decision by the Supreme Court. An August 2018 article in the Progressive Magazine titled “The Supremes v. the Unions” provides a list:
Since John Roberts was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005, the court has been hard on labor unions and the rights of working people. Here are some examples:
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. (2007): Set a time limit of 180 days for bringing civil rights lawsuits for sex discrimination complaints in federal court. The ruling was effectively repealed by the 2009 Fair Pay Act.
Davenport v. Washington Education Association (2007): Allowed states to require unions to obtain affirmative consent before spending nonmember public employees’ fees on political activities, rather than refunding fees retroactively to objecting non-members on request.
14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett (2009): Upheld a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that required union members to arbitrate age-discrimination claims.
Wal-Mart v. Dukes (2011): Declined to certify a class-action, pay-discrimination case brought on behalf of 1.5 million female employees, establishing a standard that makes it more difficult to bring class actions over wages in federal court.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014): Declared that privately held for-profit corporations are “persons” engaged in the “exercise of religion” and may deny health insurance coverage for contraception to female employees.
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (2013): Heightened the burden of proof plaintiffs must meet in individual race-based workplace discrimination suits.
Vance v. Ball State University (2013): Redefined the concept of “supervisor” under the Civil Rights Act to relieve a corporate employer from liability in hostile work environment cases.
Knox v. SEIU (2012) and Harris v. Quinn (2014): Limited fair-share fees in the public sector but stopped short of declaring them unconstitutional.
Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk (2014): Held that the time spent by warehouse workers waiting to check out for the day is not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (2018): Affirmed mandatory arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings.
Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (2018): Overturned an earlier ruling to declare that extracting fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment.
As one can see from this list, oppressed workers and all women workers were particularly targeted. And despite the religiosity expressed by many of these decisions, it’s clear that the patron saints of these right-wing justices reside not in heaven but instead on Wall Street.
Along with the Federal Reserve and the entire government apparatus, it is clear that the ruling class has mobilized all its minions to wage class war against the workers and oppressed communities, to divide and weaken us, to lower our standard of living, to augment their profits, and to pursue more military adventures abroad and police attacks at home to maintain their global hegemony.