The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that workers do not have an inherent right to collective class-action suits when an employer routinely violates par, harassment, or other laws relating to working conditions.
This decision in the case Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis limits action by a union on behalf of workers. It is, however, limited to those who have signed away the right to class-action or union representation in favor of arbitration as part of the collective bargaining agreement.
The company, Epic Systems, implemented a new company policy in April 2014. It required that all complaints against the company had to go to individual arbitration, barring collective action by the employees.
In February 2015, Jacob Lewis, an employee of the company, filed a suit against the company for failing to follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) with regard to overtime pay. It was filed as a class-action suit on behalf of all employees, despite the company policy requiring arbitration.
The Supreme Court found that, in all cases, the arbitration agreement and company policy always outweighs the right to collective action if it is uniformly employed. The employees of the company have to file individual actions for their complaints on overtime pay in this particular case.
Because the decision was made by the Supreme Court, it covers the entire nation. Employers can now require individual arbitration in all disputes, making collective action to enforce regulations and laws impossible.
What can be done?
This will make changes to collective bargaining agreements more involved. Employers are going to attempt to require individual arbitration in all contracts in the future, as it gives them more power. It is up to the trades to push back on this, as there is always more power in numbers.
Because the decision revolves around the employee agreement, more attention than ever has to be paid to the contract to assert worker’s rights to collective e action. When it is not explicitly stated, it cannot be assumed.
This decision is rightly seen as a blow against workers. But in response, it is more important than ever to fight for contracts that assert the rights to collective action including the enforcement of regulations and proper standards. That is the task at hand for everyone involved in negotiating fair contracts that support worker’s rights.