When I was a youngster growing up in suburban Rochester, NY, I didn’t know that we were a lower middle class working family.  Why?  Well, because we had a three bedroom house on four acres of land, we had a new car every two years, we took a month’s long vacation (to Canada or Florida) each summer, we had new school clothes every fall and pretty much wanted for nothing.  Okay. Not entirely true.  There was a whole bunch me and my brother “wanted” – me a horse, my bother a motorcycle, for example – that in my parent’s wisdom they chose not to fulfill.

 How did all this plenty occur particularly when my father never finished high school and my mother was a stay-at-home housewife (just like Phyllis Schlaffley would have wanted) and nobody in my family had inherited millions like The Donald?  Well, it was mainly because of the Eastman Kodak Company where my father worked.  And while this is going to sound like a fantasy crafted from whole cloth, recall that this was happening during a time in this country’s history where if you worked for a major American company and did a good job, they took care of you. 

My dad was a “steamfitter” maintaining the heating and cooling systems of Kodak’s vast film and chemical production plants and did so from the age of 17 when his father died and he was forced to quit school, until he retired in 1965.  And what did he receive for his hard work and corporate loyalty?  Well, a good salary that allowed a family of four all of the suburban bennies noted above.  He also received an annual bonus, a company financed pension, and stock options each year.   (I’m not making this up!)  It was a good life; we were living the quintessential American Dream.

I relate this story not to wax nostalgic for a mythical time past when everything was hunky dory, but simply to contrast a prototypical Middle Class life not so very long ago, with the stark differences that Middle Class America faces today. (By the way, when I finished 7 years of higher education –a five year undergraduate program in Architecture and a two year graduate program in City and Regional Planning in 1972, I owed a grand total of $2,450 to the New York State Higher Education loan program.  In today’s money that would be $14,116, less than your typical annual tuition to many state universities.)  There was a time in America when corporations were a key element in the prosperity of America.  But no longer. 

Such workplace mutual respect and benefits as my father and Kodak shared simply no longer exist today.  There are a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is the vast expansion of global trade.  In Kodak’s case, (the company still exists but operates under bankruptcy rules) it was the boom in digital cameras and photography that smashed the company’s reliance on film and film cameras and brought Kodak down.  But along with the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the substitution of low wage foreign labor for American labor, has come the ascendance of corporate rights and power beginning in the 1980’s and continuing until today.  This “corporatization” of America – the burgeoning of corporate legal rights and privileges (Citizen’s United) and the diminishment of worker rights in the face of corporate legal, political and financial power (Right To Work Laws) – now several decades old, has so tilted the power balance between us and our corporate overlords so as to make us, U.S. Citizens, virtually powerless in the face of unremitting  corporate force.   Heard the term “tort reform” that was bandied about during the 1990’s?  Well this “reform movement” wasn’t about updating the civil court system regarding civil claims and tort cases, but was about making it more difficult for us ordinary citizens to file lawsuits against companies and tort "reform" also placed limits on monetary awards that civil courts could impose in such cases.  The movement has been wildly successful. 

One way in which this power reveals itself is in the steady diminishment of our rights to sue corporations in court for corporate malfeasance.  You know all those 60 page “Agreements” you never read but have to sign to get a Google e-mail account, shop at Amazon and watch videos on You Tube?  Well, buried deep inside those agreements that none of us ever read, are clauses that bind us to “arbitration” and force us to forego our rights to seek redress in a court of law.  Nearly all such contractual agreements today - home loans, car insurance, credit cards - include such bans on bringing lawsuits against a company and force us into arbitration. By clicking on “I Agree” you have given up your right to sue Google or Amazon or Citibank in court.  This erosion of our rights to sue has been greased by Congress and the Supreme Court who have consistently placed corporate “rights” over our rights for thirty years now.  It’s been a slow, little noticed trend – I mean how many of us keep track of Federal, State and local court dockets to check on corporate intrusions into our lives – but one that has fundamentally altered the legal landscape in favor of corporations to our profound detriment.  

But thanks to the Obama Administration, we have scored a victory, yes, an admittedly small and narrow one, one that directly challenges the ever-increasing control that corporations have over our lives.   This ruling by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (part of HHS) which controls a trillion dollars in Federal funds, has barred nursing homes from requiring its residents to resolve disputes through arbitration as opposed to a court of law.  As I said, it’s a narrow victory, one that affects only 1.5 millions Americans who live in nursing homes but until the change, the nursing home industry has hidden its malfeasance behind the Mexican wall of arbitration since arbitration proceedings are not subject to disclosure while court proceedings – unless otherwise ruled by the presiding judge – are a matter of public record.

How has this come about?  Well, the nursing home industry has a spotty reputation at best both in terms of providing adequate care for its residents and for basic honesty in the industry’s financial dealings.  There have been several cases that led up to this ruling, one involving the murder of a 100 year old resident and another about a 94 year old nursing home resident murdered in Marysville, PA.   Other cases involve a 2014 case of a woman with Alzheimer’s who was raped twice by nursing staff, tons of negligent care and abuse complaints yet all these cases were barred from going to court based on arbitration clauses.   A court even barred a complainant from taking a nursing home to court because the resident signed a contract with an arbitration clause even though he could not read or write.  Arbitration is generally controlled by the entity against which a claim has been made, proceedings are confidential (secret) and records are not made public.  In addition, there is no recourse if a claimant is not successful as there would be in a court case. 

In researching a year-long investigation into arbitration practices, the New York Times examined records from more than 25,000 arbitration cases between 2010 and 2014 and interviewed hundreds of lawyers, arbitrators, plaintiffs and judges in 35 states.  The article is here: 

The Obama Administration should be congratulated on this rather startling and against-the-grain move to restore the rights of us citizens to seek redress against our corporate overlords in court. 

Have A Good Day!!


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