This is shaping up to be a truly miserable week in Washington. Decisions made in the halls of Congress and the chambers of the Supreme Court are dramatically shifting power away from working Americans and toward bosses and banks. To anyone paying attention, it’s clearer than ever who benefits from Trump’s vision of American “greatness.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court released its decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis, ruling 5-4 that employers who steal wages, harass employees, or discriminate on the job can block workers from banding together to pursue justice in the courts. As a result of the ruling, corporations can force workers to sign arbitration clauses that eliminate their right to bring collective legal action. At a company’s discretion, workers who refuse to sign an arbitration agreement can be fired or never hired in the first place. Without the threat of lawsuits, working people have little power to hold their employers accountable for breaking the law. Corporations are freed to violate fundamental workplace protections—from minimum wage laws, to workplace safety protections, to fair employment rules—with near impunity. Laws that cannot be enforced might as well not exist.
As commentators have noted, the ruling is a major blow to the #MeToo movement, as women facing systemic sexual discrimination or harassment will lose the ability to band together to fight their mistreatment in court. Workers of color, who confront pervasive workplace discrimination and face a higher rate of employment violations, will also be hit hard. By pushing workers into individual arbitration processes that favor the employer, lawbreaking corporations can powerfully shield themselves from accountability.
The 5 to 4 decision in Epic Systems was possible only because of the Republican-controlled Senate’s unprecedented refusal to hold hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, opening the door for Trump to appoint Justice Gorsuch and cement an anti-worker majority on the court.
While working people will have less power, banks are about to get much more. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 258-159 to approve S. 2155, a bill known as “the bank lobbyist act” because it enacts a big piece of the finance industry’s wish list. By rolling back key elements of the Dodd-Frank Act, the legislation removes public oversight and consumer protection put into place after banks’ reckless lending crashed the U.S. economy in 2008. The bill reduces oversight on 25 of the largest 38 banks in the United States, increasing risks of another financial crisis and public bailout by loosening rules on some of the same banks whose risky bets led to the Great Recession.
The bill also weakens protections against fraud and predatory lending for consumers seeking mortgages, leaving rural homebuyers and people purchasing manufactured homes particularly vulnerable to abuses. In addition, S. 2155 exempts the vast majority of banks from reporting home mortgage data that would help to detect and fight widespread and ongoing racial discrimination in mortgage lending. For more on the bill, see Demos’ letter of opposition.
Unfortunately, the banking industry wish list has bipartisan appeal: the bill passed the House with the support of 225 Republicans and 33 Democrats, while 50 Republicans and 16 Democrats approved the bill in the Senate. Trump is reportedly eager to sign the legislation and enthusiastic about Democrats signing on to his vision for a country where banks have less oversight and more freedom to cheat and discriminate against consumers.
Hope, as always, lies with the demos—the American people. If working people of all races turn out to vote and to engage in the civic life of their communities and our nation, as some recent primary results suggest they are doing in greater numbers, we can elect representatives who will reverse the anti-worker and anti-consumer tides sweeping through Washington. Demos’ new briefing book Everyone’s Economy lays out a policy roadmap that includes ending the type of forced arbitration that the Supreme Court has just blessed as well as strengthening consumer protections and anti-discrimination laws. With a week like this, it should be easier than ever to contrast an authentic, multi-racial populism against the phony populism wealthy elites are using to divide working people today.
Thanks to Stuart Naifeh for insight and inspiration on this post.