Unanimous SCOTUS ruling further erodes workers’ rights

In a surprising scene of unanimity by the United States Supreme Court, both liberal and conservative justices came together to rule on a claim by 800 U.S. Steel Corporation workers from Gary, Ind. regarding overtime pay.

The Jan. 27 decision on Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation denied these workers their right to overtime pay for the laborious and time-consuming task of “donning” – putting on – and “doffing” – removing – protective equipment, on the basis of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s definition of “changing clothes.”

Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary plant are commonly required, both by company policy and the dangerous nature of their work, to don hardhats, earplugs, safety glasses, respirators, boots and Kevlar pants and shirts, among other items. At the end of their eight-hour shifts, these workers then have to spend additional time doffing all of this equipment.

Just on its face, Sandifer v. U.S. Steel seems to be clear-cut for the plaintiffs. These workers have to spend time putting on protective equipment owned by the company before and after their shifts, and they deserve compensation for it.

The perversion of New Deal-era labor reform laws and basic diction, however, allowed for a pro-business ruling by an unusually united Supreme Court.

The case hinged on the interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was first enacted in 1938. Amended many times since it passage, the FLSA has provided for equal pay to women, a 40-hour week, a minimum wage and other workers’ rights.

A 1949 amendment to the FLSA also allows unions to agree to deals that exclude “changing clothes” from compensable time. The United Steelworkers of America, which purportedly represents the workers at the steel plant in Indiana, has agreed to such deals for decades.

At the time, as it does now, “changing clothes” meant going from street clothes to work uniforms.

The FLSA on the whole has provided great gains to workers and resulted from labor agitation during the Great Depression and in the post-war period.

The 9-0 ruling in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel seeks to reverse these gains. Scalia interpreted “changing clothes” as broadly as he could. “Clothing” no longer means items of apparel, taking incidental time to put on and take off, determined by personal taste and intended to protect more from embarrassment than molten steel. Instead, “clothing” refers to “articles of dress,” meaning that Kevlar pants are clothes.

Moreover, “changing” – used in conjunction with clothing – no longer means substitution, but any addition, even on top of street clothes. Any items that fall outside of Scalia’s broad definition of clothing – like earplugs and respirators – are regarded as inconsequential.

A union-management deal that once only waived workers’ right to be compensated for changing into work uniforms now means that steelworkers, while spending time donning and doffing protective equipment, are working for free.

Oddly enough, President Barack Obama’s administration intervened on behalf of U.S. Steel, submitting an amicus curiae – friend of the court – brief supporting the corporation’s case. Without prompting, Obama’s administration shamelessly impelled the Supreme Court to rule in a manner friendly to business.

It is also revealing that, in a time supposedly marked by partisan bickering, justices appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents can work together toward certain aims. Bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle” may sound like pleasant concepts, but having both parties overcome their minor differences to enact bad legislation – like cuts to food stamps and unemployment benefits – is hardly a way forward.

Instead, as we’ve seen, it merely means more cuts, more attacks on workers and an increasingly unrepresentative government.