Monday, March 21, 2011
Corporate Erosion of Civil Rights
The Supreme Court is getting ready to hear arguments in a gender bias lawsuit against Wal-Mart. The court will not, as one might expect, rule on whether the company discriminated; rather it will rule on whether a group of women who are or were employed there qualify to sue in a class-action lawsuit. As many as 1.5 million women may be included. Wal-Mart claims its stores are independent, so the women were not subjected to systematic discrimination and are not eligible to sue as a "class."
Wal-Mart has some powerful friends, and not just on the high court. Bank of America, Microsoft, and Intel have filed amicus briefs with the court in support of the company's position. Expect Wal-Mart to prevail.
Unfortunately for Wal-Mart, it failed to get those women to sign pre-employment arbitration agreements. If those agreements had been signed, Wal-Mart could have disposed of this little bump on the road to world domination with a simple sentence tucked into their hiring packets.
Chances are good that you have signed one of these agreements. If your cell phone company is Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile, you've signed away your right to sue them, even if they do you wrong. Likewise, if you have cable, a credit card, a bank account, a job, a relative in a nursing home, a student loan or a franchise business, you may have signed away your right to sue, regardless of how the company treats or mistreats you.
More and more corporate businesses are including mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer and employment contracts. These clauses state that you have given up your right to sue the company, and agree to arbitration in the event of a dispute. Here is what you agree to: In the event of a serious disagreement you will go before an arbiter, a kind of lay judge, whose decision is final. The corporation chooses the arbiter, and you bear the cost of the whole thing, including paying the arbiter, your attorney, travel for witnesses (yours and theirs), and renting the space for the whole kangaroo court. A study on credit card arbitration found that consumers lost 99 per cent of the time. That number is not hyperbole; it is a real, researched number (Fair Arbitration).
Should you become seriously irritated with this unjust, unfair, and seriously slanted (against you) playing field and decide to go to a real court with a lawsuit, the corporation will trot out the paper you signed and prove that you don't have a leg to stand on. The judge will send everyone home, and the corporation will then go back to its daily business of raping you and whoever comes its way. Some notable cases where the corporations managed to short-change people include Bank of America, which used the arbitration clause to block a wrongful death suit from a family suing over the suicide of the husband, who had lost everything in BOA investments through the fraud of a BOA investment counselor; a nurse, dismissed from her hospital job for questionable reasons after 30 years of service at age 59; and an employee of Rent-a-Center who felt he was the victim of racial discrimination. These last two were clear civil rights cases, but because the corporations involved had used arbitration clauses, the victims were left without redress, even against illegal acts.
Americans need jobs, but where do they draw the line between employment and indentured servitude? Corporations do not use these arbitration agreements among themselves. They keep their right to sue intact in dealings with each other. Their claim that they need to prevent frivolous lawsuits rings hollow in light of the Wal-Mart case, where as many as 1.5 million women may have been wronged. The aim is rather to gain license to plunder and pillage until they get caught, and then get away with it.
At some point, the economic health of a nation must be balanced with its other needs. This, sadly, seems to be where we are failing.
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