RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Supreme Court is considering a case that could have a dramatic effect on the workplace. Currently, if a worker wants to bring a claim against their employer - anything from harassment and discrimination to unpaid wages - they have to do so through individual arbitration. That means they have to make their case on their own. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether it's legal to prevent workers from banding together. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Nearly a decade ago, 15 women who worked for Sterling Jewelers started complaining that they'd been denied pay and promotions given to male counterparts. At that time, they weren't aware of each other's complaints - why? - because they had all signed paperwork agreeing such complaints could only be heard in private arbitration.
JOE SELLERS: Most of them had no way of knowing that the others had similar disputes because that was all kept confidential.
NOGUCHI: Joe Sellers is the women's attorney. A key point, he says, is that those agreements did not explicitly prevent them from joining forces. That meant they could pool resources, hire experts and retain attorneys they couldn't have secured on their own. That case now covers an entire class of 69,000 current and former female Sterling employees and will be heard next spring. Sellers says if the Supreme Court allows employers to block workers from collective arbitration, it would hurt plaintiffs like his in future cases.
SELLERS: They will have no benefit of being able to work together, collect evidence together, see that there's evidence of a pattern of conduct - which was very important to them in being able to prove their claims and in leading a numbers of them to realize they were not alone. And without it, I think many of them would have simply abandoned their claims because it was either too risky or too expensive or too hard.
NOGUCHI: Employers from tech giants to retail and restaurant chains include prohibitions on collective workplace arbitrations. By one estimate, as many as 25 million American workers may have signed such agreements, whether they realize it or not. Workers advocates say these agreements undermine a key tenet of labor law, which has long protected collective workplace action. They argue employers should not be able to nullify that by inserting a clause in some paperwork. Ceilidh Gao is an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a workers rights group.
CEILIDH GAO: Most workers in the United States aren't even aware of what arbitration is, never mind that they've signed this kind of agreement, maybe on their first day at work in a stack of papers or maybe through clicking a box through their orientation materials.
NOGUCHI: Gao says most workers drop their cases instead of going it alone, which means employers aren't forced to correct systemic workplace violations. David Seligman, a Seattle attorney representing low-wage workers, agrees.
DAVID SELIGMAN: For many folks, if you don't have the opportunity to act together in a lawsuit against your employer, you're never really going to file a lawsuit at all.
NOGUCHI: Employers argue individual disputes are resolved faster and cheaper. Harry Johnson III is a former Republican member of the National Labor Relations Board who represents employers. He says class action claims are often abused, giving a single worker the power to claim they're bringing the dispute on behalf of others.
HARRY JOHNSON III: If that claim gets aggregated, then that person, regardless of the merits of the case, instantly has a much more valuable case. So that's why class procedures are a big deal.
NOGUCHI: Employer groups also argue these agreements are contracts that the labor board cannot invalidate. Linda Kelly is general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers.
LINDA KELLY: There's a bigger issue at stake here, and that is the reach of the NLRB and whether or not it has the authority to reach down into employment contracts to this degree.
NOGUCHI: If the employment agreement is signed by the worker, they say, a contract is still a contract.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.