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Upcoming Labor and Employment Cases on the Supreme Court’s Docket

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear two cases that will have major ramifications for workers across the country. One case threatens one of organized labor’s most important rights, and the other impacts employees of car dealerships nationwide.

The Court agreed to hear arguments on Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which concerns a union’s right to take dues from non-members who are in the same bargaining unit as members the union represents. This issue of union dues has been long, and corporate interests have been successful in gradually rolling back organized labor’s ability to raise funds.

At issue in Janus is whether non-union public-sector workers can be required to pay dues to a union to help with collective bargaining. The rationale behind requiring non-members to contribute is that non-members receive benefits that are fought for by the union. If non-members are not required to pay for union activity but still reap the benefits, there is a fear that unions will see more “free riders” who are happy to get benefits without contributing, if they can.  The challengers argue that this requirement violates the First Amendment, as labor negotiations between the government and unions are of public concern.

The Court previously addressed this issue in its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. There, the Court held that required non-member payments were permissible where those funds were not used for political efforts, but for collective bargaining. This issue was before the Court last year as well in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where the justices appeared to disfavor the unions’ arguments when the case was heard in January 2016. But Justice Scalia’s death resulted in a 4-to-4 deadlock. With Trump’s appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the bench, unions are again looking at a potential defeat, as Justice Gorsuch has typically sided with the Court’s conservative bloc.

The other significant labor and employment case to be heard by the Court is Encino Motorcars, LLC, v. Hector Navarro, et al. This case addresses the question of whether certain service employees at car dealerships are entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Hector Navarro worked as a service advisor at a Mercedes Benz dealership, which treated him as exempt under the FLSA. The FLSA contains a list of several positions that are exempt from its overtime pay requirements, including car mechanics, car salesmen, and car “parts countermen.” Navarro argues that his position—service advisor—does not fall under any of these categories and, therefore, is not exempt. The Court had previously heard this case and sent it back to the Ninth Circuit with the instruction not to give deference to a Department of Labor statement on the issue.

While these cases address wholly separate substantive matters, they both represent the ongoing effort to curtail workers’ statutory rights. Business interests have, for decades, fought a campaign against organized labor, in large part because organized labor has historically been an extremely effective liberal political force. At the same time, business interests continued to whittle away at workers’ statutory protections, such as those guaranteed by the FLSA, by reducing the number of employees who are entitled to these protections.  This is why Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent President Obama from appointing a successor to Justice Scalia. That crucial swing vote will almost certainly decide the outcome in Janus and may decide Encino Motorcars, as well.

If your employer has violated your rights under federal, state, or city labor and employment laws, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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