WASHINGTON – Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson stood in a Senate meeting room Tuesday and talked about sexual harassment. The Minnesota native and former Miss America did not discuss the particulars of her claims of inappropriate conduct that cost Fox News chief Roger Ailes his job. Carlson focused instead on mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts that can turn cases like hers into dirty little secrets.
Arbitration that forces employees into secret hearings conducted by company-picked decisionmakers “silences survivors of sexual harassment,” Carlson said.
She spoke surrounded by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and other Democratic members of the Senate and House who are introducing various measures to allow aggrieved employees and customers a day in court if they so choose.
So far, business interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have fought off efforts to circumvent arbitration clauses that fill the fine print of millions of employment and service agreements.
Opponents call legislative and regulatory measures that allow class-action lawsuits as an alternative to mandatory arbitration a “gift to plaintiffs’ lawyers” rather than to those who might sue.
Carlson said she hoped Congress “would take an extra look this time around, because specifically around the issue of sexual harassment, the floodgates have been opened.”
Said Carlson: “I really do think life works in mysterious ways, and this has become my mission.”
Franken, who failed in an attempt to pass a forced arbitration bill last year, praised Carlson as an inspiration for other women who have been sexually harassed at work, making sure they know they are not alone.
Carlson was not alone in her criticism of mandatory arbitration at Tuesday’s news conference.
Kevin Ziober, a Navy reservist, said his company fired him when he told his bosses that he was being deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2012. Ziober tried to sue under a federal law that supposedly keeps companies from retaliating against deployed members of the military. But a federal appeals court ruled that his company had the right to force him into mandatory arbitration because it was included in the employment contract he signed. Ziober said he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. However, the high court has backed forced arbitration on earlier occasions. So the solution needs to be legislative, Franken and others said.
Franken knows that, in a Republican-run Congress, he and other Democrats face long odds to pass laws that provide legal alternatives to mandatory arbitration clauses. Still, he believes situations like Carlson’s and Ziober’s represent a call to action. Mandatory arbitration, he said, “is a permission slip to opt out of the justice system.”