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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Labor and Workers’ Rights

| Reproaction

By: Caitlin Blunnie

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination is a historic and exciting moment in our nation’s history. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman and the first public defender to serve the court. [1] Her judicial record shows a lifelong commitment to fighting for civil rights, economic justice, and fairness.

Every year, the Supreme Court makes decisions on key issues – including abortion rights, voter rights, and labor rights – that shape and impact the lives of millions of people. We deserve a Supreme Court that reflects the demographics of our country. Despite this, of the 115 Justices to serve the court, all but six have been white men. People of color make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, and today only account for 17 percent of justices on state high courts. [2] Judge Jackson’s nomination won’t break the 6-3 conservative majority, but her presence on the court would influence rulings, create dissent, and could encourage policy change from other legislative bodies.

Judge Jackson’s nomination also comes at a time where decades of economic inequality and the ongoing global pandemic have renewed calls for advancing workers’ rights, fair treatment, compensation, and union participation. Over the last several decades, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially as wages continue to stagnate (the $7.25 federal minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009). In contrast, an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that compensation of the top CEOs increased 1,322.2 percent from 1978 to 2020. [3]

During the pandemic, the need for labor organizing intensified as many workplaces failed to adequately provide front-line workers with proper safety equipment, sick leave, and hazard pay. From teachers to fast food workers, unions have proven to be an effective tool for collective bargaining and for workers to improve working conditions, especially during the pandemic. Unions are organizations made up by workers who harness their collective power to negotiate workers’ rights. Unions work, and an increase in union membership through the 1930s and 1960s strongly contributed to closing the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans at that time. [4]

While the majority of people support unions, many states have outdated labor laws that favor anti-union policies. Many of these laws, some deceptively called “right to work” laws, prevent workers who want to have a union from joining or forming one in their own workplace, and may even limit union membership and its ability to bargain for better conditions. [5]

The Supreme Court has weighed in on key labor and workers’ rights over the years, often siding with corporations. In 2018, after the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court ruled on two cases that would have major implications for workers. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the court determined that companies can legally obligate workers to sign ‘class-action waivers’ that prevent workers from being part of a collective lawsuit against their employer. [7] In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled that workers should instead go through arbitration, a process that typically benefits the employer. The second case, Janus v. AFSCME, called into question the kind of fees unions can collect. The court ruling found that non-members of public sector unions don’t have to pay these fees, causing many unions to take a massive financial hit, thus limiting their power. [7]

Despite the Supreme Court generally ruling against workers, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s presence on the court could help shift how these cases are decided. While serving the circuit courts, Judge Jackson has demonstrated a deep understanding of the role that the judiciary plays in determining the extent of workplace protections for workers. [8]

In a number of cases, she has ruled in favor of employees who exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to organize and collective bargain. In February 2022, she authored an opinion in American Federation of Government Employees, AFLCIO v. Federal Labor Relations Authority, safeguarding the collective bargaining rights of public-sector labor unions. [8] Similarly in 2019, when she was a judge on the District Court, Judge Jackson barred the Trump administration from restricting the collective bargaining power of federal workers’ unions in American Federation of Government Employees v. Trump. In the ruling, she found that the Trump administration policies attempted to narrow and limit grievance procedures, prohibit collective bargaining, and make it easier to fire employees. In her opinion, she explained “Congress clearly intended for agencies and unions to engage in a broad and meaningful negotiation over nearly every ‘condition of employment.’” [8] While the D.C. circuit court later reversed the decision, her opinion shows where she stands as an advocate for workers’ rights.

In addition, Judge Jackson has repeatedly cautioned against dismissing employment discrimination claims in the early proceedings, ensuring workers are able to vindicate their rights. [8] Though it should be noted that Judge Jackson has also denied relief at summary judgment in a number of cases, which prevents a jury from considering plaintiffs’ claims, creating additional obstacles and a higher bar for employees trying to prove workplace discrimination.

It is clear that Judge Jackson is someone who understands the importance of equality in our country. In 2021, she voted to uphold President Biden’s eviction moratorium, which was designed to keep renters in their homes during the pandemic. [8] During her confirmation hearings in 2021, Judge Jackson drew on her experience as a public defender where she saw firsthand how difficult the court process was to navigate. As a trial judge, she explained she would “speak directly to [criminal defendants]” because “I want them to know what is going on.” [8]

There is no reproductive justice without economic justice. We deserve a Supreme Court that reflects and serves the needs of all people. Judge Jackson is one of the most qualified judges to be nominated to the Supreme Court with experience at all levels of the judiciary. Through her time on the courts, she has used her perspective to further the ideals of equal justice under the law. We look forward to celebrating Judge Jackson’s confirmation and her continued work serving the court and people.

Sources:

[1] https://www.npr.org/2022/03/05/1084771994/ketanji-brown-jackson-could-bring-public-defender-background-to-supreme-court

[2] https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/state-supreme-court-diversity-april-2021-update

[3] https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-in-2020/

[4] https://journalistsresource.org/economics/inequality-labor-unions/

[5] https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/588043-renewed-support-for-unions-belies-anti-labor-laws-in-most-states

[6] https://www.epi.org/publication/the-growing-use-of-mandatory-arbitration-access-to-the-courts-is-now-barred-for-more-than-60-million-american-workers/

[7]  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2018/07/18/scotuss-labor-decisions-bad-news-for-working-people/

[8] https://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/Judge-Jackson-Report-FINAL-3.15.22.pdf

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