What Congress Plans To Do For Labor

The Democrats owe a lot to the labor unions and affiliated labor friendly organizations. They poured a lot of cash and manpower into the last election to good result. Now it’s payback time. Like it or not that’s the way it works.

The current economic environment may cause some deferral of debt repayment. Protectionist measures will likely have to be taken off the board for the time being and card check (essentially the elimination of the secret ballot in union  elections) might be a bridge too far. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is going to be delivered. Two fairly revolutionary bills are likely to see passage within the first few weeks of the new administration and President-elect Obama will certainly sign them. One is known as the Lilly Ledbetter Act and the other deals with the issue of comparable worth.

Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear for 20 years and retired in 1998. After retirement she sued the company claiming wage discrimination dating back to her early years with the company. Currently the legislation enabling such suits contains language that requires claims to be filed within either 180 days or in some circumstances 300 days. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the language was valid and denied her claim.

Her lawyers had been able to get the suit all the way to the Supreme Court based on the legal theory that each time she received a paycheck a new act of discrimination occurred based on her original disenfranchisement. Thus her suit fell within the statute of limitations proscribed in the law.

Congress evidently plans to effectively eliminate time limitations on the filing of discrimination suits similar to the one filed by Ms. Ledbetter. It’s, at least to me, unknown at this point in time how broad a swath of similar types of suits will be included in the legislation.

The comparable worth debate has been around for years and positions on either side of the issue have remained frozen. The Solomonesque solution purported to be coming is to require labor officials (I have no idea who this might be) to establish voluntary industry standards. The legislation may also make it easier to bring class action suits in comparable worth cases and allow for unlimited punitive damages.

I care for neither bill. Both seem to be nothing so much as class action magnets. In the case of the Ledbetter law litigating discrimination cases decades old which rely to a large extent on personal testimony to either prove or disprove is folly. As for the comparable worth issue, it has always seemed to me to be one in which every pro argument can be met with an equally valid con argument, thus any voluntary guidelines will simply reflect the biases of the officials charged with setting them.

So labor gets some return on its investment. In case you didn’t notice, there is another big Democratic support group that also stands to benefit. That’s right. Those lovable members of the tort bar. It’s a two-fer.

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