Supreme Court rulings harm workers, especially women workers

Written by: Michelle Kaminski

Primary Source: Union Work

American workers and their unions were dealt major losses by the U.S. Supreme Court today. The court ruled against workers in two cases, both of which have special relevance for women workers.

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The U.S. Supreme Court Building

1. Hobby Lobby ruling: Certain corporations can have religious beliefs and use them to deny workers health care coverage

The court ruled that private, for-profit companies can refuse to include certain kinds of birth control (e.g., IUDs and the morning after pill) in their health care plans, contrary to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), if the company has a religious objection. This does not mean that the managers or owners have a religious objection. Rather, the court held that the corporation itself can have religious beliefs and use them to refuse to follow the law. In the past, only religious employers (e.g., churches, mosques, religious schools, etc.) could use the religious objection argument to avoid following selected government regulations. That’s why, for example, some religious employers can refuse to hire women as clergy, even though this obviously conflicts with civil rights laws. Now, for-profit corporations like the Hobby Lobby, whose business is selling craft supplies and has nothing to do with religion, can refuse to follow the law on religious grounds.

You might also wonder what else this will apply to. If your employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, can they refuse to pay for your surgery if it involves blood transfusions? If your employer is a Scientologist, could you be denied coverage for psychiatric care? What if your employer is a member of a religion that promotes the view that men are more valuable than women, or that women should stay at home? Will that mean they are justified in refusing to hire women or paying women less, based on religious grounds? Will companies be able to use a religious pretext to avoid doing other things that cost them money?

Chief Justice Roberts claims that this is a narrow ruling, and will only apply to contraception. But he’s the same guy that said the Citizens United decision would not result in a substantial increase in money spent by corporations on political campaigns — so his crystal ball seems pretty cloudy to me. He also said that employers will not be able to use religious grounds as a pretext for race discrimination. Glad to hear that. But funny thing — he didn’t mention sex discrimination at all. And I hate to be so ridiculously obvious, but this case is directly related to sex and gender. Maybe it’s not just his crystal ball that isn’t working.

2. Home health care workers’ union weakened by ruling

Home health care workers in Illinois — the people who take care of the sick, disabled, and elderly in their homes so they don’t have to be moved into institutions – have seen their wages increase from minimum wage levels to $13 per hour since they became unionized. Workers were required either to become dues-paying members of the union or to pay their “fair share” of dues that cover the costs of collective bargaining. Not anymore. The court has ruled they do not have to pay any dues, essentially applying Right to Work laws in a state (Illinois) that is not a Right to Work state. This ruling is expected to be extended to other states.

How does this affect women? About 95 percent of home health care workers are women. The median hourly wage is about $10 per hour. Through unionization, some home health care workers have increased their wages and their standard of living. But this ruling will make unionization much more difficult.

The one bit of good news is most legal observers say this will not apply to other public sector unions. But who knows how good that crystal ball is.

The bigger picture

I hear a lot of people say that politics doesn’t matter, because politicians are all corrupt. I don’t doubt that getting elected and staying in office requires some unseemly behavior. I know I would find it unseemly if I had to spend hours every day raising money for my next campaign.

But politics really does matter, and today’s rulings are examples of that. Not every worker and not every union member will be affected by these rulings, But the rights of working people as a group are diminished by them, and by plenty of other new laws and court rulings in recent years.

So, we need to stay informed and we need to take that knowledge with us into the voting booth. As you know, Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Both of these cases were decided by the same 5 – 4 vote. For both cases, the five justices ruling against the workers were all men appointed by Republican presidents:

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Current justices of the Supreme Court. Front row, left to right: Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg. Back row, left to right: Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts (appointed by Bush II)
  • Antonin Scalia (Reagan)
  • Anthony Kennedy (Reagan)
  • Clarence Thomas (Bush I)
  • Samuel Alito (Bush II).

The justices that voted to protect the rights of workers, and especially working women, included three women and one man, all appointed by Democratic presidents:

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Clinton)
  • Stephen Breyer (Clinton)
  • Sonia Sotomayor (Obama)
  • Elana Kagan (Obama)

Your vote for President and U.S. Senate can affect Supreme Court decisions. Your vote can affect what rights you have on the job. Your vote can even affect whether you have a job at all. So use your vote, and use it wisely!