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As Long as We Remember...

July 22, 2005

Back to the 1890s?

Chris Charuhas

My grandmother went to work in a Philadelphia sweatshop when she was nine years old. The floor manager picked a different girl to molest each day. If a girl refused, she got fired, and her family suffered. That’s life when business regulation is weak.

My grandfather ran a shoe repair shop in Cumberland that went bust after he had a heart attack and couldn’t work in it. Things got very tough for his family. That’s life with a weak social safety net.

That’s what the coming Supreme Court confirmation debate is about. It’s about whether workers and consumers can defend themselves against predatory corporations, and whether citizens can preserve a decent living when old age arrives and disaster strikes.

The man whom the president has nominated to be a Supreme Court justice apparently believes that some business regulations and social advances are unconstitutional. Reproductive rights will garner a lot of attention during the confirmation process, but the basic issue at hand goes deeper than that. The big question is: “Do we want to live like Americans did in the 1890s, or the 1990s?”

D.C. Circuit Judge John Roberts, the president’s nominee, seems to be hard-line on economic issues. This is worth examining because many big corporations want a hard-line Supreme Court justice who will help roll back post-Great Depression business regulation and New Deal workplace reforms. Many big corporations want a Supreme Court like the one that existed 100 years ago, which, in the name of unfettered business, stood against the advancement of everyday folks.

During the confirmation process, anti-reproductive rights activists will squawk loudly, but big business lobbies will be applying the muscle behind the scenes. Big companies such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and insurance giant AIG have spent millions through front groups to make appeals courts less-friendly to wronged customers and employees. Now they’ll try to do the same with the Supreme Court.

Why do they care?

Because, up until 1937, the Supreme Court would strike down laws such as the one in Nebraska that regulated the weight of bread loaves, which kept buyers from being cheated. It struck down laws like the one in New York that set a maximum 10-hour workday. According to the Supreme Court back then, big companies were within their constitutional rights to exploit their workers and the public at large.

Then, in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed some new justices with a modern view of what the Constitution allows. They allowed our democratically-elected Congress and president to pass laws that spurred and regulated the economy. Workplace safety reforms were implemented. Social Security was created. Big Business was regulated to defend the general public.

Some judges, however, don’t think the Constitution allows for that. One of the president’s appeals court nominees, Janice Rogers Brown, has called the "Revolution of 1937" a disaster. That’s what many big companies are looking for in a Supreme Court justice. They want someone who’ll declare laws like the Clean Water Act, minimum-wage laws, workplace safety protections, and even Social Security unconstitutional. This would free them from having to bother with things like making workplaces safe, disposing of toxic waste responsibly, and contributing a little to insure workers against personal disaster.

John Roberts doesn’t seem to be as extreme as Janice Rogers Brown, but his views on workplace and social protections are worth examining. In Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, Mr. Roberts argued that environmental groups concerned about mining on public lands did not provide enough information about the impact of the government's actions to sue. In another case, he argued that a worker with carpal tunnel syndrome was not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, even though she was fired for an injury acquired on the job.

Democrats won’t filibuster Judge Roberts, but they will raise some important questions. As you watch Senator Harry Reid (D., NV) lead the opposition in debate, bear in mind that he understands what life was like before the Supreme Court allowed Congress to defend everyday people against exploitation.

Reid’s father was a miner in the hardscrabble desert town of Searchlight, Nevada. His mother lost all her teeth because of the deficient diet that comes with being poor. He grew up without indoor plumbing and had the same teacher for eight grades growing up. He knows what life could be like if economic and social advances are dismantled on fundamentalist grounds.

Think it couldn’t happen? It already is. Weakened business regulation led to the Enron debacle, in which the retirement savings of 11,000 people were lost forever.

Modern workplace standards are ignored in the Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory, where thousands of workers are forced to live behind barbed wire in shacks without plumbing and work for 12 hours a day, often seven days a week. Texas Congressman Tom DeLay (R.) killed a bill to help them in the House of Representatives. He called the low-wage, anti-union conditions in the Marianas “a perfect Petri dish of capitalism.”

Migrant workers in Florida are subjected to the same awful conditions. As reported in The Palm Beach Post, they’re brought in to work agricultural jobs, then forced into debt, cheated, abused, and locked up at night behind barbed wire. This miserable indentured servitude is allowed to continue by Florida’s Big Business-friendly state government.

If you don’t mind living in a “perfect Petri dish of capitalism,” like people in the Marianas or as agricultural workers in Florida do, then you’ll want to unquestioningly support the president’s Supreme Court nominee. If you don’t mind living like my grandmother, grandfather, or Senator Reid did growing up, then you won’t want to examine Mr. Roberts’ judicial record and philosophy.

If you want to live like Americans did during the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when our economy grew faster than it ever had, broad-based prosperity was the rule, and we had adequate protection for workers and consumers. then you’ll want to make sure that Mr. Roberts will preserve modern advances in business regulation and social insurance.

John Roberts may be a justice who will help big corporations pollute our air and water, defraud investors, exploit workers, and injure consumers without consequences, just like big corporations did 100 years ago. He may be an enlightened jurist with a modern view of what the Constitution allows. We just don’t know. That’s why our representatives in Congress must look at him closely.

While watching the coming debate over the president’s Supreme Court nomination, you should pay attention to the questions Mr. Roberts is asked, note his answers, and ask yourself, “Does he want me to live like Americans did in the 1890s, or the 1990s?”

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