The Loss of an American Hero: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

October 14, 2020 2:22 PM

By President Rich Maroko

Our nation lost a brilliant legal mind and tireless advocate for equality on Friday, September 18th, with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg was a whip-smart litigator, champion for women’s rights, and fierce defender of the most vulnerable Americans.

She believed that our Constitution and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were for all of the people, not just the rich and the powerful. As a lawyer and later as the head of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg continued the fight to expand civil rights regardless of a person’s race, sex, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation and she defended against conservatives who resisted that progress, and who are now on a rampage to reverse it.

Justice Ginsburg understood that what really makes America great are the laws that give all people the opportunity to pursue a better future, and it is precisely this view of our Constitution and the law that inspired me to become a lawyer. It is with gratitude, profound sadness, and great admiration that I’d like to pay tribute to her contributions to our nation, and our membership.

The justice shattered glass ceilings

Justice Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine and her mother was the daughter of Polish immigrants. Growing up, Justice Ginsburg witnessed first hand the bigotry and hatred that new immigrants, like her parents and grandparents, suffered in the United States. She saw them endure discrimination, exploitation at work, invisibility and poverty in order to give their children a better future. Unlike too many Americans, Justice Ginsburg didn’t forget where she came from. She recognized that her parents and grandparents were no different than those coming to our country today. She would dedicate her life to ensuring that those immigrants who came to our country to build a better life enjoyed equal protection under the law, and to ending the brutal persecution of some which has persisted since the first inception of our country.

After graduating from James Madison High School in Sheepshead Bay, Justice Ginsburg attended Cornell University and later, Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. She transferred to Columbia Law School in New York City, where she graduated with her law degree. Despite graduating first in her class at Columbia, Justice Ginsburg had difficulty getting a job after graduation. Men dominated the field of law, and discrimination based on sex was still legal and, therefore, considered perfectly acceptable by the “gentlemen” of the legal profession. In 1960, she was rejected for a clerkship by then-Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter because she was a woman. And in 1963, when she was hired as a Professor at Rutgers University, she was paid less than her male colleagues.

Creative legal strategies at the Women’s Rights Project

In 1972, Justice Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she crafted a clever strategy to expand women’s rights in our country. Rather than persuade the courts to outright end gender discrimination (and in essence, participate in the growing revolution for women’s rights in the United States), Justice Ginsburg tackled specific discriminatory statutes one by one. And, understanding the biases of her time and those of the male judges she would argue before, Justice Ginsburg looked for cases in which men were discriminated against based on their gender.

In her first case before the Supreme Court, Frontiero v. Richardson, Justice Ginsburg argued that Lieutenant Sharron Frontiero and her husband Joseph Frontiero were harmed by different requirements for men and women to receive spousal benefits from the U.S. military. Lt. Frontiero worked for the U.S. Air Force and applied for medical and housing benefits for her husband. The Frontiero family was required to prove that Joseph was financially dependent on his wife, a requirement that did not apply to the wives of male service members. When they were unable to do so, Joseph was denied spousal benefits. Then-attorney Ginsburg argued that Joseph Frontiero was denied equal treatment under the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment on the basis of his sex.

The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of Lt. Frontiero and her husband, declaring that military benefits cannot be distributed differently based on sex. The ruling furthered the fight for gender equality within the military and Justice Ginsburg was on her way to securing equal treatment under the law for American women. Between 1973 and 1976, she would win five out of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court — each case building on the last.

Continuing the fight for equal rights from the bench

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Justice Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit). Thirteen years later, in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court. She was only the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.

While on the bench, Justice Ginsburg continued the fight against gender discrimination, both when authoring the Court’s opinion and when authoring her dissents. One of her most famous dissents was for the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 2007. The plaintiff, Lilly Ledbetter, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging gender discrimination. After working for Goodyear for 19 years, Ledbetter discovered that she was being paid thousands of dollars less than men doing the same work. Despite proving to the court that she was the victim of discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter, ruling that her claim was time barred. The Court ruled that Ledbetter, and future workers, must file a charge within 180 days of the unlawful discrimination, even if they are not yet aware that the discrimination is taking place. The decision displayed both a lack of common sense and a lower standard of justice for the working class, making it even harder for employees to win already difficult discrimination claims.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg described the Supreme Court’s ruling as “totally at odds with the robust protection against workplace discrimination Congress intended Title VII to secure” and called on Congress to undo the Court’s decision. Soon after, newly elected President Obama signed his very first piece of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would “restart the clock” for 180 days after each discriminatory paycheck is issued.

The fight for gender equality is familiar for many long-time members

While our Union’s contracts prohibited employment discrimination in 1942 (at a time when racial and gender discrimination was not only common practice, but widely accepted), for many years the IWA still allowed management to pay waitresses less than waiters and room attendants less than housemen despite their jobs being very similar.

As many long-time members may remember, in the early 1980s, our Union aggressively tackled this problem. In 1981, in negotiations with the Grand Hyatt, the Union won equal pay for room attendants and housemen. That same year, former HTC President Vito Pitta brought the issue of equal pay to arbitration. For nearly 4 years, the arbitrator at the time, Millard Cass, refused to issue a ruling. And so, in 1986, our Union sued on behalf of room attendants under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Only five days later, Arbitrator Cass issued a decision, equalizing wages between room attendants and housemen, but allowing the hotels to assign room attendants up to three extra rooms per week to save money.

Our Union pressed on, pouring resources into the lawsuit. Finally, in 1990, the Hotel Association and the Union reached an out-of-court settlement during contract negotiations. The deal threw out the arbitrator’s infamous "three rooms decision" and called for room attendants to be paid for all extra rooms they may clean. In addition, it raised wage rates for any women who worked at night and other women in the hotels’ housekeeping departments who had not had their wages equalized by the arbitrator’s decision in 1985.

Carry the torch in the fight for equality

Justice Ginsburg was devoted to protecting our Constitution and the rights of all Americans. It is reported that she worked through excruciating pain during her final years, almost never missing a day of oral arguments at the Court.

As a Union of women, immigrants, and Black and Brown people, we owe thanks to Justice Ginsburg for spearheading the fight for equality. The best way we can pay tribute to her is to continue to carry the torch in the fight for fair treatment and justice. Non-union workers in our industry are still far too often victims of wage theft and mistreatment. Most earn poverty-level wages, lack access to affordable healthcare, and are incredibly vulnerable during this crisis, with no legal right to be recalled to work or to negotiate over safety standards. We can honor Justice Ginsburg by continuing our work to organize the non-union hotel and gaming industries and build our political power to pass meaningful legislation that protects working people in our communities.

In Solidarity,

HTC President Rich Maroko