–crossposted from The Huffington Post—
Early Saturday morning, the Senate passed an amendment that marks the first, critical step toward protecting all Americans from being forced into arbitration rather than seeking justice through the courts.
Attached to the Defense Appropriations Bill and sponsored by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the amendment protects defense contractor employees who have been victims of sexual assault, harassment, or other forms of discrimination and then forced into one-sided arbitration proceedings by their employers.
The amendment was inspired by Jamie Leigh Jones, a story that illustrates how ugly and unjust these agreements can be. Jamie was employed by KBR/Halliburton when she was drugged, raped, beaten and then confined to a shipping container by fellow employees while working in Iraq. Jamie was then denied from seeking justice through the courts due to a clause placed in her KBR employment contract that forced her to submit to a binding, secret, non-appealable arbitration. Unaware that the clause was even part of her 18-page employment contract, Jamie had to fight to get access to the justice system.
The provision is a significant victory for this subset of employees who experience the most egregious conduct. But this legislative action now must serve as the springboard to protect Americans from forced arbitrations in all contexts.
Corporations use forced arbitration against their employees or customers to escape accountability. These mandatory binding arbitration clauses are hidden in the fine print of everything from cell phone, credit card, franchise and employment agreements to nursing home care contracts. Just by taking a job or buying a product or service, consumers and employees are often forced to give up their right to take their case to court if they are harmed by a corporation.
Two bills now face Congress that would broaden the scope of protection from these abusive practices: The bipartisan Arbitration Fairness Act (S. 931 / H.R. 1020), sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), which would ensure that the decision to enter arbitration is made voluntary, and the bipartisan Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act (S. 512 / H.R. 1237), sponsored by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts.
A coalition of groups is fighting to protect Americans from forced arbitration clauses. The Fair Arbitration Now Coalition, of which the American Association for Justice is a member, has stories of people who have seen the horrors of forced arbitration up-close. Visit their website and learn how you can take action.