The Supreme Court crushed working women over this past term. Next year, expect worse.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was considered a swing vote during his time on the Supreme Court, but this year alone he joined conservatives in three decisions that are hugely damaging to women.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was considered a swing vote during his time on the Supreme Court, but this year alone he joined conservatives in three decisions that are hugely damaging to women.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The Supreme Court has been terrible to women all year ― and that’s with Anthony Kennedy, the conservative swing vote, on the bench. Now that he’s retiring, the court’s steady-drip assault on women’s economic and reproductive rights is poised to turn into an all-out war.

The stakes are now life and death. Any judge President Donald Trump appoints will surely be anti-abortion, as Trump has promised. The path to reversing Roe v. Wade seems more certain than ever, raising fears of backroom or even self-induced abortions.

“This is a really dire moment where we need to keep our eyes on the next step,” said Sunu Chandy, legal director at the National Women’s Law Center, echoing the concerns of myriad progressive groups that are afraid of what’s to come and gearing up to fight.

Still, it’s worth looking at the damage Kennedy and his conservative male peers on the bench have already done to women this year ― delivering hits to their pocketbooks, the Me Too movement and health care rights. It’s a reminder of how perilous this situation already is, and of how much farther there is to go before hitting bottom.

Kennedy joined the court’s conservatives on three 2018 opinions that were particularly harmful to women.

On Wednesday, in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the court hobbled public unions, ruling that members do not have to pay any dues if they disagree with their union politically. That puts labor groups’ funding in danger.

Union membership is a pathway to economic security for many workers, but especially for minorities and women ― women make up 55 percent of public sector union workers, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center.

Women in unions who work full time earn 30 percent more than women who are not, according to data compiled by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Hispanic women see the biggest gains from belonging to a union; those without union membership earn only $565 a week on average, compared with $829 a week for their union counterparts, according to IWPR. That’s a 47 percent boost in pay.

When women and people of color have unions out there bargaining for their pay, the likelihood of pay discrimination shrinks dramatically, Chandy said. The gender pay gap among union members has long been smaller than for nonunion workers. As has the racial pay gap.

The Janus ruling was just the latest in a decadeslong conservative attack on labor on behalf of the country’s biggest businesses.

But unions advocate for more than just good pay for workers, according to Chandy. “You have an entity going to bat for you,” she said.

That can mean better health care and retirement packages, safer workplaces, more protections for disabled workers, and more fair or predictable schedules ― an issue of particular significance to working mothers.


The day before the Janus ruling, in another 5-4 decision, the conservatives on the court ruled that so-called crisis pregnancy centers, typically run by Christian abortion opponents masquerading as medical professionals, were not obligated to tell women seeking medical information about the availability of actual reproductive health care services.

The ruling is a hint of what’s to come next year, if Trump gets his way and puts an abortion opponent on the bench.

And last month, in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the court ripped away many workers’ right to band together with their colleagues and take a company to court for wage violations, discrimination or other workplace grievances. According to the decision, employees who have signed arbitration agreements are bound to secret courtrooms outside the justice system where each employee has to argue her case individually.

Many workers don’t even bother, allowing companies to get away with all kinds of discrimination and abuses, including wage theft. The ruling was a blow to the Me Too movement, making it harder for women who have been harassed to find each other and join together in pursuing justice in the courtroom.

With the Epic ruling, the conservative justices ― led by Neil Gorsuch ― made clear, again, that they’re sitting on the anti-worker, pro-business wing of the bench. And that wing is sure to stay strong with the addition of another conservative justice to replace Kennedy. That’s bad for women, minorities, low-wage workers ― pretty much anyone who’s already at a disadvantage in this economy.

“When you have a pro-business approach, it is going to negatively affect women who already have less power in the economy,” said Kate Bahn, an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. That goes for anybody who is facing historical sociopolitical imbalances of power, including people of color, Bahn adds.

It’s worth noting that economic equality for women and reproductive access are intertwined. When states pass restrictive abortion laws, for example, it’s poor women who are more likely to lose access.

For example, even if you’re a low-income woman lucky enough to have Medicaid, your abortion may not be covered by the government insurance if you live in the wrong state.

If you’re lucky enough to be a worker in a union, you’re much more likely to have good health insurance. Seventy-seven percent of women in unions have coverage, compared with a little more than half of nonunionized women, according to IWPR.

Certainly, whomever Trump picks will continue the conservative tradition of screwing workers in favor of corporations, further imperiling the hard-won rights of women.

What could be a more damning indictment of the so-called “right to life” movement than a Supreme Court that rolls back Roe v. Wade, essentially forcing women to have children, and then pulls the rug out from under them when they go to work to support their kids.

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