Class Actions: Strength in Numbers
It's an inescapable fact: Our modern society is dominated by large companies. They can be good or bad (or both), but as a general rule they are all much more powerful than individual people.
One of the ways our laws balance power is through class actions. In a class action, a single person or a small group of people (class representatives) bring a case against a defendant who has caused the same type of harm to a large group. For instance, the defendant may be a telephone company that is systematically overcharging its customers for service. The customers who are being overcharged are referred to as the "class." Without a class action, this type of harm may not be stopped. If the amount of the overcharge is small, then it may not be worth the time, effort, and expense for a single person to bring a case against the telephone company. The phone company would win: even thought it only takes a small amount from each person, it adds up to a huge amount when combined.
In the employment context, class actions are extremely important. Many employees are (jusitifiably) afraid to sue their employers because they fear retaliation. Courts recognize this legitimate concern of employees. One judge, writing a decision in a case against Family Dollar Stores, said it well: "Class members who are still employed by Family Dollar may fear reprisal and would not be inclined to pursue individual claims." Class actions eliminate this problem. If the employer is sued by all of its employees, retaliation is not an option.