California is the nation’s leader when it comes to protecting the fundamental rights of workers. Over the decades, with strong support from the labor movement, legislators have passed landmark legislation from paid family leave to anti-sexual harassment laws to measures that boost wages and promote safe workplaces.
But all those laws are in jeopardy. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), by 2024 80 percent of all non-union private sector workers will be employed under forced arbitration clauses that deny workers the right to stand together to seek justice in a court of law when they are sexually harassed, cheated out of wages or otherwise exploited on the job.
Soon, the vast majority of workers will have signed away their right to go to court or to join with their coworkers to vindicate their workplace rights.
The explosion of forced arbitration clauses, which many large corporations require workers to sign upon hire, is garnering national attention. Recent action by workers at video game developers at Riot and engineers at Google are putting a spotlight on the pernicious practice of forced arbitration. That’s a good thing. But still, many companies are ignoring calls from their own employees to end the practice. Riot recently announced it would continue using forced arbitration despite the protests.
In 2012, the number of workers bound by forced arbitration was 16%. That figure rose to 55% in 2017. Last year, a study from EPI found that over 67% of all California workplaces use forced arbitration agreements. While much of the media attention has been focused on tech companies’ use of forced arbitration, studies show that the workers most frequently subjected to this practice are low-wage workers, women workers, and black and Latino workers.
Last year Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez authored a bill, sponsored by the California Labor Federation, to end forced arbitration in California by banning companies from forcing workers to sign arbitration clauses that strip them of their rights as a condition of employment. The bill had the backing of Jane Fonda, former Fox News host and whistleblower Gretchen Carlson and a broad array of consumer and labor groups. The legislation passed the Assembly and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Brown.
Legislation has also been introduced federally to curb the use of this practice. While we support the federal efforts, with an anti-worker President and Senate, these bills have little chance to pass. California can’t afford to wait for federal relief.
Gonzalez and the labor movement are back this year with AB 51, a bill that tackles the problem of forced arbitration head on. AB 51 ensures that workers shall not be required, as a condition of employment, to waive their right to take worker protection claims such as those involving sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, pay equity, or retaliation to court or a state agency. Additionally, the bill prohibits employers from threatening, retaliating, discriminating against, or terminating workers because they refuse to consent to such a waiver.
Unless the California legislature and Gov. Newsom step in to protect workers, forced arbitration could effectively wipe out decades of progress on workers’ rights. We simply can’t allow that to happen. Now is the time for California to assert its leadership with bold action on forced arbitration. We strongly urge the Legislature to pass – and the Governor to sign – AB 51.