The University of Minnesota undergraduate student government presented a resolution last week calling for increased transparency and education surrounding employment contracts that limit employee legal rights.
The Minnesota Student Association drafted a resolution to push education about “coercive contracts,” which include clauses such as nondisclosure agreements, forced arbitration, class-action waivers and noncompete clauses. The undergraduate student government wants to protect students at the University from unknowingly entering into these contracts.
Clauses like these affect more than 60 million workers nationwide from pursuing legal action in court, according to the Economic Policy Institute. These contracts are known for silencing victims of sexual harassment, discrimination and oppression in the workplace by preventing an employee from pursuing legal action, according to the EPI.
General education around nondisclosure agreements and other kinds of coercive contracts is minimal, if any, according to Molly Coleman, a senior at Harvard Law School and co-founder of People’s Parity Project, which works to dismantle coercive legal systems nationwide. The nonprofit was started by Harvard Law School students and has been working with MSA to draft their resolution for over a year.
Nationally, the population is not aware of these clauses because lawyers have designed them to be hidden in the fine print or easily missed, Coleman said.
“Most of the time workers will sign away their rights, and they don't realize it until it's far too late. But [coercive contracts] allow workplace misconduct to continue and allow sexual harassment, racial discrimination [and] so many other evils that we know we want to fight,” Coleman said.
MSA members said they hope to “lift up the voices” of victim-survivors of assault and anyone else who has experienced workplace discrimination said Gurtaran Johal, MSA’s Sexual Assault Task Force chair.
“We're basically making it so these individuals have the opportunity to speak up for themselves,” Johal said.
Through this resolution, MSA plans to work with the University’s Career Services and other departments across campus to educate the student body about the contracts. Examples would include adding information to student career guides, notifying students on GoldPASS if an employer uses these contracts and putting up informational posters at job fairs.
Katy Briggs, an author of the resolution, said that many employers no longer use the contracts once people are made aware of them.
“To me, that's really a signal that these clauses and contracts are oppressive,” Briggs said. “I think that that's a really big indicator of how these contracts can be used with unhealthy power dynamics.”
The University said in a statement that, as an employer, it does not use mandatory arbitration clauses, but it also does not have a specific policy about their use.
While lack of education is still an issue, Coleman said that the most effective way to spread awareness about coercive contracts is to keep talking about them.
“We need to be talking about coercive contracts,” Coleman said. “When we talk about the global economy, when we talk about inequality in American society, you need to look at the coercive contracts.”