Congress should restore workers’ rights to fight discrimination

By Jane Dolkart and Kim Hayes, October 22, 2012

Congress needs to pass legislation to restore workers’ rights to combat widespread discrimination. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decimated this right to file class-action suits in its infamous Walmart decision.

In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of female Walmart employees, despite strong evidence of discrimination. Women comprise 70 percent of Walmart’s hourly workers but only 33 percent of managers. There are even fewer women in higher-level and better-paid management jobs, and women are paid less in every region.

In its decision, the Supreme Court placed significant hurdles for any group of employees to join together to fight discrimination in the workplace. As a result, courts have refused to certify class actions alleging sex or race discrimination against such employers as Costco, Family Dollar Stores, Nucor, and Lockheed Martin.

To mark the anniversary of that decision, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and 40 other lawmakers introduced the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2012, which would restore workers’ rights to band together to fight systemic workplace discrimination.

Supporters of the Walmart decision may say that the Supreme Court ruling protects employers and the legal system from frivolous lawsuits that bog down the legal system. However, class actions can actually increase the efficiency of the legal process by avoiding the necessity of repeating witnesses, exhibits and issues in multiple trials.

What’s more, without group actions, many employees would find it difficult to finance an individual case or hire an attorney to take such a case.

For more than 40 years, class actions have played a crucial role in achieving racial and gender justice. When employers have systemwide policies, the only meaningful way to bring about change is through court-ordered relief applicable to a whole class of workers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2012 would ensure that employees have the tools to come together to combat continuing workplace discrimination through group actions.

If Congress wants to restore its credibility with the American people and show that it truly is a body that represents all citizens, then we urge it to stand up for American workers to ensure that they have the ability to band together to fight for their rights — and against discrimination.

Jane Dolkart is the senior counsel for the Employment Discrimination Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Kim Hayes does communications and development for the group. They can be reached at