What ‘Chevron deference’ means for workers

By: - January 22, 2024 5:00 am

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Quentin Young | Colorado Newsline)

The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to overturn a little-known, yet highly consequential precedent once celebrated by Republicans like former President Ronald Reagan. Labor experts fear such a break from precedent would hurt workers by hobbling the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and other executive agencies’ ability to enforce important rules regulating workplaces.

For four decades, the high court’s ruling in a case called Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council has empowered executive agencies overseeing the workplace, the environment, the stock market and other parts of American life. Under the “Chevron deference” principle, judges must defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretation of ambiguous laws.

Perhaps nowhere has that been more necessary than in labor, where federal authorities must routinely interpret two sparsely written laws from nearly a century ago: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects workers’ right to organize; and the Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week and banned child labor.

The Biden administration has wielded “Chevron deference” in support of unions and rank-and-file workers when deciding, for example, what counts as “protected concerted” activity when workers push for higher wages or complain about working conditions. Without Chevron deference, judges will have more power to decide these questions, while executive agencies may be less willing to issue certain regulations in the first place.

In the Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday, some of the court’s conservatives appeared ready to dispense with Chevron, noting some perceived shortcomings of the approach, including that it disadvantages individuals and small businesses in favor of the government.

The court’s three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, meanwhile, sharply questioned the need to overturn Chevron, which they said allows people who are experts in subject matter to make decisions where Congress has left the law ambiguous.

Getting rid of this principle will likely reduce the vast swings in policy from one presidential administration to another workers are subjected to. After all, the Reagan administration supported the Chevron decision because it allowed his agencies to pursue deregulation with less interference from liberal judges.

But the rightward shift of the federal courts over the past 40 years and the limited expertise of judges when it comes to complex labor issues will likely be worse for workers on the whole, according to University of Minnesota law professor Charlotte Garden.

“If you think about the backgrounds of federal judges, relatively few of them have much experience with labor unions or even low-paid jobs,” Garden said. “On balance, getting rid of Chevron deference will be worse for workers … even though we’ll probably be able to point to some examples where it’s been good.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is a reporter for the Reformer focusing on labor and housing. Most recently he was associate producer for MPR’s Morning Edition after a stint at National Public Radio. He also co-founded the and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.