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UPDATED: Obama Order Single Most Important Step for Civil Rights in 20+ Years

UPDATED: Obama Order Single Most Important Step for Civil Rights in 20+ Years

Photo via Mark Blacknell on Flickr

Major news outlets are reporting that President Obama is preparing to sign an executive order providing that corporations who receive federal contracts worth more than $1 million may not require their workers to submit to forced arbitration clauses for claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination based on race or gender) or for claims involving sexual assault. This news is incredibly important – it is the single most important action strengthening the enforcement of the civil rights laws in decades. Every substantial civil rights organization in the United States has long pointed out how unfair forced arbitration clauses are for workers.

Going back several decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed employers to insist that workers submit to forced arbitration claims for all of their legal disputes against corporations. Even workers who have been the subject of extreme race and gender discrimination have largely lost the right to go to court, and have instead been forced into arbitration before arbitrators picked by a company picked by their employer. Overwhelming statistical evidence demonstrates that workers who take cases to forced arbitration are less likely to win than workers who can take their cases to court, and those workers who do win tend to win, on average, far smaller awards than those who are allowed to go forward to court.

One unfortunate aspect of the Executive Order is that it “only” covers claims for gender and race discrimination under Title VII and claims relating to sexual assaults, but it does not cover claims for violation of the wage and hour laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. Accordingly, corporations who contract with the federal government, but who violate laws such as those requiring the minimum wage and providing that workers can get certain breaks and overtime in some situations, can continue to use forced arbitration clauses. Hopefully this issue will be addressed in some future executive order or statute.

It’s been a long time since there has been good news for workers whose civil rights have been violated. In the decades since the 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly chipped away at those rights. Today’s news is a welcome reversal of this downward trend.