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ILR dean testifies to Congress on mandatory arbitration

Forced arbitration imposed on workers by corporations undermines employment rights and should be eliminated, ILR School Dean Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, told the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions during a virtual hearing Nov. 4.

“Forced arbitration has grown to become the predominant way in which employment law disputes are resolved in the American workplace,” said Colvin, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean and the Martin F. Scheinman ’75, M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution. “This change has occurred with little public oversight, but has profound implications for the rights of the American worker,” he said.

Alexander Colvin

Colvin spoke during a hearing on the proposed “Restoring Justice for Workers Act,” which would eliminate a forced arbitration system critics say is heavily weighted against workers. It would also restore the ability of workers to bring collective action, rather than having to stand alone, against an employer.

Sixty million current workers gave up their right to go to court when they accepted their jobs, according to Colvin’s research. Most did not realize what they were sacrificing. Mandatory arbitration clauses are typically buried in paperwork new employees sign before starting jobs.

Almost 25 million workers also waived their right to act in concert with other workers when facing an employer in a dispute, he said during the hearing, entitled Closing the Courthouse Doors: The Injustice of Forced Arbitration Agreements.” Colvin, whose mandatory arbitration research has been cited twice in U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, was the lead witness.

The proposed legislation, Colvin said, “would eliminate forced arbitration and restore the ability of workers to bring class or collective claims, while preserving the beneficial use of arbitration in the collective bargaining context and where there is a genuinely voluntary post-dispute agreement.”

In order to achieve the promise of alternative dispute resolution procedures like arbitration and mediation, Colvin said, “it is necessary that they be truly voluntary, bilateral processes agreed to and run equally by both parties to disputes. The current system of forced arbitration imposed on workers by corporations undermines employment rights and should be eliminated.”

The longstanding system of labor arbitration, Colvin said, with its cadre of neutral arbitrators respected by both sides, is the ideal model of successful use of arbitration to resolve workplace disputes.

In addition to Colvin, Cornell alumnus Roger King, J.D. ’71, testified at the hearing. In thanking the witnesses at the end of the hearing, subcommittee chair U.S Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) provided a moment of levity.

“I didn’t imagine being so dominated by Cornell,” he said. “I felt like all of a sudden singing ‘Hail, hail, Cornell.’”

Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.

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