It only took about a week since Democrats seized control of the U.S. House for things to look up for working-class Americans. Before even officially grabbing the gavel, House Democrats submitted legislation to curb employers’ growing habit of forcing workers into arbitration.
“For far too long, corporations have tied the hands of American workers through the use of forced arbitration clauses, which are often buried in the fine print of employment contracts and used as a precondition for employment,” stated U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York). “I am proud to introduce the Restoring Justice for Workers Act to finally put an end to this exploitation of American workers and to ensure they have equal protection under the law to hold their employers accountable for illegal behavior.”
Companies have been fighting to keep employees and potential litigants out of the courtroom and in front of defendant-friendly attorneys who decide cases in private. Aside from generally handing out anti-plaintiff decisions, arbitrated cases are generally finagled without public scrutiny, and rarely with the employer or corporation admitting any wrongdoing.
Arbitration agreements are ubiquitous these days. Many consumers don’t realize that when they sign a contract on a new credit card, walk into the doctor’s office or place an elderly or infirm relative in a nursing home they could be signing away their right to sue for any wrongdoing done to themselves or their loved ones. In many cases, when a consumer or employee signs the agreement they are doing so under duress. Arbitration language is frequently stowed in the paperwork that doctors hand out in waiting rooms, for example, and signing it isn’t always high on a patient’s list of concerns when bleeding onto a clinic floor.
The practice of forcing would-be employees to sign arbitration agreements similarly exploded over the last few decades. It’s an effective method for protecting serial sexual harassers, race discrimination and wage theft. It’s also great at muffling victims and hiding indiscretions. It wasn’t surprising, then, when the practice took center stage earlier this month as more than 20,000 employees at Google arranged a massive walk-out in protest of it. Android co-founder Andy Rubin helped things along by further inciting rancor when he got paid $90 million to leave the company in 2014, following a sexual assault allegation. Sensing a trend, Facebook agreed to end the practice as well, and was soon joined by Airbnb.
Nadler and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) had already taken the fight to the federal level in late October, but at that time both served the House committee in a minority role. That changed after the November elections, which tossed arguably racist personalities such as Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa), and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) from their majority positions. Elevating Reps. Nadler and Scott into the House majority means elevating their objectives, and that apparently includes restoring Americans’ rights to a courtroom.
Pro-worker organizations like the Service Employees International Union came out in heady support of the legislation.
“No person working in the United States should have to sign away their rights just to have a job,” SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry told Grit Post. “This is what happens when unscrupulous employers are allowed to rig the system against working people by forcing them, as a condition of employment, to give up their basic right to stand together to hold companies accountable for unlawful conduct. This legislation is an important step towards ensuring working people can have their rights respected in the workplace.”