Soapbox

Fundamental unfairness of arbitration

I never knew companies had the power to strip citizens of their rights until I experienced it.

In March 2015, I was hired in San Francisco by office-leasing startup WeWork at a salary of $42,000. Though the job title was vague, I was excited to be part of a growing startup. Unbeknownst to me, buried at the end of my offer letter was a single sentence, a “forced arbitration” clause requiring me to travel across the country to New York to resolve any dispute with the company.

It was apparent early on we were expected to “play hard, hustle harder.” Most of us spent time on menial tasks like retrieving mail and changing beer kegs kept on each floor as a perk to the youthful clientele.

We worked long hours and were under tremendous stress. When I expressed concerns to managers, I was met with a common excuse: “We are a startup” – albeit one valued on Wall Street at $17 billion. I did some research, and began trying to organize with my co-workers to improve our working conditions and pay.

When my manager discovered this, she told me to stop talking to other employees, and asked if I wanted to resign because I might not fit “the culture of WeWork.”

I stuck in there, but a few weeks later managers surprised all employees with new contracts. They included a forced arbitration clause waiving any right to a jury trial as well as any class or collective action. I refused to sign and was fired.

It was only after I filed a wrongful termination claim in California that I learned how my legal rights had been undercut. WeWork filed a petition to compel arbitration in New York, which was granted by a judge in New York. I was left to argue my case before a private arbitrator in a far-away forum, by myself.

My experience taught me a sobering lesson about our democracy. With increasing frequency, corporations are usurping government control of our courts and the legal system through the use of forced arbitration, leaving citizens virtually powerless to protect themselves.

Forced arbitration is an unregulated, unmonitored and private for-profit alternative to courtroom proceedings. Cases in arbitration are settled behind closed doors, with no public disclosure, no right of appeal and none of the strict procedural rules that courts follow. The risk of unfair and unethical proceedings is inherent.

“I use the same arbitrators over and over, and they get paid when I pick them,” one corporate defense lawyer said at a recent conference in Long Beach. “They know where their bread and butter comes from.”

Corporations argue that arbitration is a cheaper alternative to the judicial system. While a fair and just arbitration proceeding is entirely possible, cases of abuse are being unmonitored and unheard. We would never let a private security company solve a serious crime instead of police, yet we are permitting a private justice system at the exclusion of our courts.

A bill before Gov. Jerry Brown could help restore some of the basic rights we have lost. SB 1241 by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, would prohibit corporations from cherry-picking venues for their own convenience and transferring employment cases to states with unfriendly laws.

There are inequities in our country that should not be justified by corporate capital gain. Abraham Lincoln knew this: “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed, if labor had not existed first. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Gov. Brown, we the citizens who labor, deserve your higher consideration.

Tara Zoumer lives in Oakland and can be reached at tlzoumer@gmail.com.

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