The Supreme Court Just Dealt Workers a Body Blow

It's the motto of a million teen movies, heist films, and found-family narratives: We're stronger together than we are apart. It's also the central premise of large swaths of the labor movement, and the U.S. Supreme Court just delivered a ruling that shakes its foundation.

On Monday, the court issued a 5-4 ruling in the matter of Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis. It's a case about whether employees can take on management as a class or whether they're forced to negotiate individually. These arbitration rules largely cover salary and hour disputes; the original suit was filed on behalf of a group of workers who said they'd been denied overtime pay.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that federal laws like National Labor Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act still hold, since they were enacted by Congress. This ruling says that businesses can enforce waivers in which employees sign away their right to collective arbitration. Leading the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, "Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees." Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the ruling strikes at the heart of the New Deal itself.

A lawyer representing the employees in the dispute told Chief Justice John Roberts that this ruling would affect 25 million workers. Filing individual suits over hours and pay is often more expensive, more time-consuming, and less likely to get off the ground. Whether employees can bring class-action cases to their employer for fair compensation now depends on that employer's willingness to allow it.