Workers’ Rights

A female striker holds a United Farm Workers eagle flag and covers her face to hide her identity during the San Luis, Ariz., strike, 1974.
Children join men and women shucking oysters in the Varn and Platt Canning Co. in Bluffton, S.C., 1913.
Author of Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit, Dr. Karen Miller, associate professor at LaGuardia Community College, argues that African-American efforts to push urban liberals toward a commitment to racial equality in the interwar years helped shape the terrain of increasingly interracial northern cities.
CUNY School of Law Professor Shirley Lung has worked on labor issues affecting Chinese garment, restaurant and construction workers in New York City and writes about issues affecting immigrant and low-wage workers.

The centrality of work in creating an American’s identity makes the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding workers’ rights particularly significant. Yet, the Court has generally equated workers’ rights with business transactions rather than individual rights. At various times, the Court has applied the 14th Amendment’s liberty provisions to limit government attempts to regulate working conditions such as setting maximum hours in Lochner v. New York (1904). The Court has also used the Commerce Clause to say that labor disputes are part of commerce and therefore upheld federal injunctions against strikes In re Debs (1895), but during the New Deal it sued the Commerce Clause to uphold certain rights of workers. The Court has applied Congressional statutes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) on behalf of the cause of achieving workplace equality and equity.

Many of the Court’s opinions have revolved around the rights to unionize. Supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Chief Justice Hughes in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) found that it was in the state’s interest to protect workers from the “exploitation” of “unconscionable employers.” The Court upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel (1937), which established a federal administrative agency as the arbiter of private sector employer-employee relations and required employers to recognize the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Concerns other than union organizing have appeared on the Court’s docket. For instance, the Court in Slochower v. Board of Higher Education of New York City (1956) found unconstitutional a tenured faculty member’s dismissal from Brooklyn College because he was denied a hearing after invoking his self-incriminating privilege. In Maryland v. Wirtz (1968), the Court construed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to cover minimum wage and overtime for employees in state-operated schools, hospitals, and related institutions. However, the Court has also declared that Congress does not have the power to require states (and the state’s subdivisions) to be governed by FLSA in Alden v. Maine (1999).

Women have sought employment equality from the United States Supreme Court. By the 1970s, an organized women’s movement took their objections to the judicial system, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as grounds for equality. The relevant cases fell into three categories: challenges to government benefit eligibility, pay scales, and promotions; pregnancy and maternity-related issues in the workplace; and gender-related exclusions from employment and schools.

In response to the case General Electric v. Gilbert (1976), which had ruled that GE could exclude coverage for any condition resulting from a pregnancy, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Now discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Back to Top