One of the chief complaints emerging from the 99 percenters camped in New York City and around the world is the sense that the top 1 percent have gotten away with something—that no amount of malfeasance on their part could endanger their status.
The movement began, of course, on Wall Street, where this phenomenon is glaringly typified. By now, the chutzpah of the bankers, who are batting away even the gentlest attempts to regulate their behavior after they ruined the economy and got trillions in taxpayer bailouts, is well-known.
But financial professionals are only the third-biggest slice of the 1 percent. Executives of nonfinancial companies make up the largest share of 1 percenters. What maneuvers do they use to secure their advantage and protect themselves from any conceivable concession to the 99 percent?
Sometimes they find that manipulating the legal process meets their needs most efficiently. Take, for example, the recent eviscerations of class-action lawsuits. When Wal-Mart v. Dukes was before the Supreme Court earlier this year, big businesses rushed to the defense of the company. The megastore, run by the Walton family—one of the wealthiest in the world, with a collective fortune of $90 billion—was being sued by a class-action group of women charging gender discrimination at stores nationwide. The US Chamber of Commerce’s litigation center filed an amicus brief on the company’s behalf, as did a wide array of large corporations, from Altria to Bank of America to General Electric.
The Court decided against the women, saying they must sue individually and cannot act as a class in action against Walmart. The legal logic the justices applied limited many class-action suits going forward and means that “the bigger the company, the more varied and decentralized its job practices, the less likely it will have to face a class-action claim,” according to longtime Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston.
A similar but less noticed case two months earlier, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, goes much further—it “entirely kills most class actions,” according to SCOTUSblog. AT&T, the fourteenth-largest company in the world, argued that cellphone customers suing for fraud must do so individually, rather than as a class, because an arbitration clause in the company’s contracts forbids class-action suits. Lower courts found this company-imposed ban on all class actions unconscionable, but the Court disagreed—and in the process eliminated most consumer and employment class-action suits. “Without minimizing Wal-Mart v. Dukes, getting upset about that case is like flipping out over a brief thundershower a few weeks after having slept through Hurricane Irene,” SCOTUSblog noted.
Although they have no particular interest in AT&T’s cellphone activities, several big business groups eagerly petitioned the Court in amicus briefs supporting the company. The American Bankers Association, the Financial Services Roundtable—a giant shill for Wall Street that spent almost $7.5 million on lobbying last year—and the US Chamber of Commerce all filed briefs.
The effect of these cases, which few Americans are aware of, is that megacorporations, and by extension the executives who staff them for lavish salaries, cannot be held accountable even if their products defraud or damage customers. Nor can they be held accountable for discriminating against their employees—their fortunes are protected regardless of their actions.