Little noticed in coverage of President Obama's signing of the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces executive order July 31 was a provision that has been called "one of the most important positive steps for civil rights in the last 20 years."
The statement comes from Paul Bland of the public interest group Public Justice, quoted by Emily Bazelon of Slate. He's right; what he's referring to is a provision of the order that bars employers from forcing workers to bring workplace discrimination, sexual assault or sexual harassment cases only through arbitration. As Bazelon reports, the order applies to firms with federal contracts valued at more than $1 million. But that's plenty.
The arbitration provision got little attention in the media, in part because business lobbyists were so busy carrying on about other aspects of the executive order.
As my colleague Christi Parsons reported, businesses are exercised about a rule requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations dating back three years and government agencies to take those violations into account when handing out federal contracts. The idea is to goad employers into settling the violations before they apply for contracts.
A California federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected AT&T's demand to compel arbitration. But the Supreme Court sided with the company in a 5-4 ruling (naturally).
This was a reflection of what legal scholar David Cole recently called the Court's "unremittingly conservative" narrowing of access to the judiciary to remedy legal wrongs. The Earl Warren Court, he observed, "viewed the courts’ highest calling in a constitutional democracy as safeguarding those who cannot protect themselves through the political process." The Roberts Court puts its thumb on the other side of the scale.