Many have observed, correctly, that the Supreme Court’s recent 5 to 4 decision upholding forced arbitration for employees is a “devastating blow” to the rights of working people. This decision by the court’s conservative majority will affect an estimated 60 million workers, who will now be unable to band together to fight the legal and financial power of their employers when they have been mistreated in the workplace.
Judges in the Machine
Americans have traditionally viewed the Supreme Court as an unbiased, apolitical institution. But today, more than ever, this is an illusion. The court’s conservatives are now an openly partisan cadre. They’re political operatives, not jurists. They’re part of a vast and well-funded Republican machine that seeks to screw American workers so it can further enrich its wealthy patrons.
Were it not for some underhanded Republican machinations, they wouldn’t even have a court majority.
Republican justices openly placed party above country in 2000 when they handed the presidency to a fellow Republican despite being unable to defend their decision as a precedent for future rulings. If they hadn’t done that, neither John Roberts nor Samuel Alito would be on the Court today.
Another cog in the Republicans’ anti-worker machine, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, denied a rightfully-elected president another Supreme Court appointment when he and his GOP Senate colleagues refused to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s nominee, the moderate, highly qualified and widely respected Federal Judge Merrick Garland. Obama picked Garland to fill the seat of Antonin Scalia, the conservative ideologue who sat on the court from his appointment by Ronald Reagan in 1986 until his death in 2016.
Scalia’s seat stayed empty until April of last year, when it went to Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, another partisan and ideologically right-wing justice with a long record of ruling against workers.
So it was the combination of McConnell’s partisan gamesmanship with the influence of conservative justices who came to the court as a result of Bush v. Gore that handed corporate America and conservative activists like the Koch brothers what they had long pined for: a conservative majority on the highest court of the land.
Those pundits who call for a return to political “norms” should remember that the theft of Garland’s seat took place during the supposedly “normal” pre-Trump era. It wouldn’t have been possible without support from a number of the so-called “Never Trump” conservatives, or from “Resistance” Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake. Flake, for example, said he would only support a vote on Garland’s nomination in the event that Hillary Clinton won the presidency – because, he said, he assumed Clinton would nominate someone more “liberal” than Garland.
Trump, the Cog
Despite his bouts of pseudo-populist verborrhea, Donald Trump is a key part of this worker-crushing machine. His Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, suspended Obama-era rules for expanding workers’ rights to collect overtime pay; he’s promised a new set of rules, but has yet to act. Acosta has also proposed a rule that would let employers to keep their employees’ tips, a move that would cost hard-working people an estimated $5.8 billion each year.
Acosta has rescinded the “persuader” rule, which protects workers from deceptive union-busting tactics. He dragged his feet on implementing the “fiduciary rule” requiring brokers, agents, and advisors serving retirement funds to act in their clients’ best interests, and the rule now appears to be dying a slow death in the courts.
Acosta has eviscerated health and safety programs, and the number of OSHA workplace safety inspectors has reportedly fallen. He has even rolled back a rule prohibiting teenagers from working in dangerous jobs, operating chainsaws and heavy machinery.
Trump has placed anti-worker appointees in key positions at the National Labor Relations Board, as well as the Department of Labor. The Trump Administration has promised to roll back Obama-era restrictions of giving lucrative government contracts to corporations that screw American workers.
Those rules needed to be strengthened, now weakened. A study by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office found that nearly 12,000 companies had been found “illegally underpaying their workers and violating wage and hour laws.”
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Trump made his latest anti-worker move on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, a time when fewer people are likely to notice. He issued a series of executive orders designed to gut federal workers’ ability to negotiate collectively, and other protections.
Republicans Against Workers
There isn’t enough space here to list all of Trump’s other anti-worker deeds. But he hasn’t acted alone. The Republican Party has been doing this work for years, in Washington D.C. and across the country.
Since Trump took office, he and his party have teamed up against working Americans. The tax cut passed by Trump and the Republican Congress helps wealthy individuals and corporations, not working people. Congress passed, and Trump signed, a measure that blocked a critical rule holding employers responsible for workers’ health and safety.
But the Republican assault on workers predates Trump’s tenure. Republicans in Congress have blocked an increase in the federal minimum wage since 2009. As a result, the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom house or apartment in any county in the country.
The anti-worker machine is working at the state and local levels, too. Republicans have successfully passed anti-union measures, deceptively named “right-to-work” laws, in 28 states. These laws prevent working people from organizing to negotiate for better wages and benefits. Republicans are also leading the way in passing laws that protect franchise corporations from any responsibility for violations of state employment law in their franchisee locations. These laws have already passed in 18 states.
These measures, and the politicians who passed them, have been directed, financed, and promoted by a broad range of self-serving billionaires and corporate interests. At the state level, groups like the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provide politicos with advice, draft legislation, and staffers. Indirectly, they also provide entrée to wealthy donors. At the federal level, candidates are awash in PAC funds, dark money, and other sources of corporate and billionaire cash.
Fighting the Machine
The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in the Janus v. AFSCME, which could severely curtail unions’ ability to collectively bargain for workers. Here, too, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is poised to deal another powerful blow against working Americans. Here, too, big money is calling the shots. As a study from the Economic Policy Institute reveals, the litigation in that case is being financed by billionaires and right-wing foundations that are closely tied to corporate lobbies.
Billionaires and corporations provide the money that fuels this anti-worker machine.
How can people fight back? It will take pro-worker candidates willing to challenge the machine directly – not just at the federal level, but in state and local elections as well. These candidates must be willing to fight: for higher minimum wages, better benefits, and workplace protections.
At the national level, it will take a working people’s agenda that includes a $15 minimum wage, the Workplace Democracy Act, federally-established standards for family and medical leave, and other policies that help working Americans. The Restoring Overtime Pay Act would protect an estimated 12 million workers from being exploited by employers who force them to work more than 40 hours without compensation.
The Supreme Court’s conservatives are doing the bidding of corporate and billionaire America. For now, the best solution is democracy. It will be a challenge in today’s rigged electoral system, but a new and progressive Congress can rewrite the laws the Court interprets. It can also rewrite the laws that allow billionaires and corporations to subvert the electoral process.
When it does, it can shut down the anti-worker machine for good.