The Supreme Court Misreads History

How Epic Systems fails to understand twentieth-century labor history

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D

For decades, workers have relied on class action lawsuits to protect their rights. A single employee underpaid by a small amount – say, $5,000 – might struggle to recover that money from his employer. However, if that employee realizes that all his coworkers are also victims of wage theft, the group’s total claim could reach into the millions. Individual employees are more likely to recover if they work together.

But on May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling undermining the rights of employees to work together if their employer violates the law. The case, argued in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, pits two early twentieth century laws against each other: the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The court’s ruling misreads history – and the history of labor in the 1920s and 1930s holds valuable lessons for our current situation.

First, a quick reminder. In the 1920s, when the Federal Arbitration Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Coolidge, the economy was booming. It was the Roaring Twenties, and America’s wealth doubled from 1920 to 1929. Of course, the biggest economic event of the twentieth century began in 1929: the Great Depression

The economic boom of the 1920s didn’t benefit everyone equally. Businesses, wary of the rise of unions and the threat of strikes, began forcing new hires to sign yellow-dog contracts promising they wouldn’t join a union. The coercive practice wasn’t outlawed until 1932, when the nation’s economic situation looked very different.

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