Zarda, Just Work, and the Limits of Antidiscrimination Law

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. LPE Blog is hosting contributions from scholars that detail the history of sex discrimination protections and address how law should redress gender hierarchies and disparities in economic power. Find all the posts in the series here.

Deborah Dinner –

The stakes in Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, pending before the Supreme Court, are unquestionably high. The question in the case is whether the prohibition on discrimination “because of … sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would enhance the employment security of the more than an estimated eleven million adults in the United States who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. It would also bolster the ability of unions and worker organizations to strengthen the power of workers by preventing employers from using gender and sexuality to divide the workforce in ways that inhibit collective organization.

As progressives push for antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals, they would do well to look for ways to connect this fight to workers’ collective struggles regarding work hours, conditions, and pay. The history of Title VII and sex-based employment laws offers lessons about the crucial importance of pursuing antidiscrimination law together with protective labor regulations. In an article titled Beyond “Best Practices”: Employment Discrimination Law in the Neoliberal Era and in a forthcoming book, I show how sex discrimination law and retrenchment in labor regulation intertwined in the late twentieth century. This history reminds us that antidiscrimination law does not itself guarantee substantive justice in the employment relationship; reveals the ways in which employers may use antidiscrimination as a deregulatory tool; and offers a vision for economic justice that synthesizes individual freedom with collective protections for workers.

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