Scores of news anchors robotically intoned “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” after reciting what turned out to be a script by Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner and operator of 193 local TV stations. Dan Rather called it Orwellian, and many have asked in amazement: why would local journalists across the nation allow themselves to be used in such a demeaning way?
The answer is to a lawyer with decades handling cases involving low-wage workers: people need jobs. But the anchors may have an even more specific concern: an employment contract that doesn’t just bind but entraps them. Sinclair contracts contain a requirement that employees must pay their employers if they leave their jobs before their contract terms end. For example, an employee making $50,000 annually might have to pay in the ballpark of $10,000 if she wanted to leave after one year of a two-year term. The contract describes this requirement as “liquidated damages”. But such damages are allowed only in very limited situations, such as when an employee leaves a job shortly after receiving, at the employer’s expense, costly, specific, and transportable training. This is hardly the situation for Sinclair employees.
The Sinclair contracts also contain a non-compete clause, barring employees from working for competitors for a set time period after separation. Non-competes have come under considerable public scrutiny of late, covering around 20% of workers, according to a recent report. State case law typically allows non-competes only to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests (like trade secrets), and requires them to be reasonable regarding time period and geographic scope. Preventing a journalist from working for BuzzFeed or Facebook anywhere in the world seems, well, not very geographically limited.
But the use of employment contracts to trap and exploit workers is a growing trend, including for low-wage workers, who may “sign” the contracts rapid-fire among a pile of papers in the HR office or among a string of touch-screens, and who often don’t receive copies of their own contracts. Worst of all, they have no real ability to consult with lawyers or understand what they’re giving up; and they have no choice but to sign if they want the job. Companies that try to limit their liability by hoodwinking their employees into signing abusive employment contracts are taking advantage of the extreme power imbalance between an employer and a working person. People need to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Abusing that fact to keep people tethered, and to steal away basic rights, is reprehensible.
Workers can take the lead in joining together to unearth and combat these abusive practices. Teachers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are rising up, seeking better conditions for themselves and their students. Workers at media companies have been electrified, too, organizing new unions in recent years.
The Sinclair anchors spoke in unison delivering the company’s message. Maybe one day soon, they can take back the power and again speak in unison, this time delivering their own.
Taken from here