So what does Downton Abbey have to do with a seemingly ho-hum recent Supreme Court case about pension benefits for union retirees? Lots.
The decision in question is the recent Supreme Court decision of M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that interpreted the Labor Management Relations Act ruling that health care benefits for union retirees continue permanently, even if the collective bargaining agreement expires. In other words, even if a collective bargaining agreement ends, the company is still on the hook for health care benefits for retirees.
The Supreme Court ruled that since that understanding wasn’t explicitly spelled out in the contract, then the union retirees were out of luck. The Supreme Court relied on supposed “common law” principles to arrive at this result. Common law was developed by courts in England and transported across the Atlantic to the United States in the 17th century. It was a system that largely favored the Lord Granthams of the world. For example, there was no such thing as “workers’ compensation” or “employment law.” There was the “law of master and servant.”
If you watch Downton Abbey or know much about the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “servants” weren’t pleased with this arrangement. So starting in the 1910s, state legislatures started passing workers’ compensation statutes. In the 1930s and 1940s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress started passing laws like the Labor Management Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which gave employees protections in addition to what they had under the common law. This expansion of employee rights continued with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 and amended in 2008, and the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993.
No law passed in the last 100 years that protects the rights of employees really has any basis in the common law, so when the Supreme Court starts using 18th century English law to interpret those laws, then employees should be concerned.
Lay people who follow politics may get confused by a 5-4 split. What happened there was that the four Democratic-appointed justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, agreed with the outcome of the case but not the reasoning used by five Republican-appointed justices, Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Of note, none of the supposed “liberal bloc” supported the decision made by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the highest federal court for the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The judges of the 6th Circuit are appointed by the president and subject to approval of the Senate, just like Supreme Court justices. It’s hard to argue that the judges of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals are somehow out of the mainstream of legal opinion or radical bomb throwers.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers and union leaders who read this blog will sometimes lament how the blue-collar people we represent largely vote Republican, based on social issues and national security issues, even though their economic interests are aligned with the Democratic Party. But after reading M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett, can blue-collar conservatives be entirely blamed for not thinking the Democratic Party supports their economic interests? Maybe plaintiffs’ lawyers and union leaders are the real chumps for blindly supporting a national Democratic Party that seems to be indifferent to their interests and the interests of those they represent.