Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, flanked by senators who had just passed bipartisan legislation on sexual harassment claims, recalled Thursday when a friend told her five years ago that something good would come out of her lawsuit against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.
“I didn’t really see it that way at the time, but it turns out she was right,” Carlson said. “A lot of good has come from my decision to come forward and speak for the millions of others who couldn’t. A lot of good has come forward from walking the halls of Congress for the last five years, working with both parties.”
The bill would give workers the opportunity to pursue sexual harassment and sexual assault claims in public courts, instead of being forced by employer arbitration agreements to pursue those claims in a confidential forum. Illinois Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have filed versions of the legislation in the past three sessions of Congress.
This version moved unusually quickly through both chambers this week, with a 335-97 vote Monday on the House floor and a voice vote Thursday on the Senate floor. It now heads to the desk of President Joe Biden, whose administration has signaled strong support for such a bill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer credited the legislative success in part to the tenacity of Gillibrand and to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s effort to “convince businesses that this is good for business as well.”
And Schumer thanked Carlson, who he said did not “curse the darkness” but instead “lit a candle,” and “it was her courage that brought us here today.”
Gillibrand said the bill would give workers the ability to use the courts to find out more information about their abusers and get out of a forum where they are more likely to lose and typically get smaller monetary rewards if they prevail.
The bill also would allow them to discuss their cases publicly, Gillibrand said, “to tell your story, to tell your colleagues, tell your family, to tell the people you know and love what’s happening.”
Carlson said the bill will help change business cultures. “It’s going to help companies get on the right side of history, that’s for sure,” Carlson said. “But it will also stop the bad behavior because now the bad actors will know that women’s voices will be heard when they speak up about what’s really happening at work.”
And Carlson — whose story became the basis for the 2019 drama “Bombshell,” with Nicole Kidman playing the former Fox News co-host — wants to expand the push for legislation to end arbitration in other areas of worker rights. “I think I’ll be having a lot of meetings moving forward,” Carlson said.
That road is less certain. Graham said arbitration has its place, but he’s “open-minded about where arbitration is being abused.” And the former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps said there are changes that need to be made and he will continue to listen and find common ground.
Gillibrand said Congress “wanted to get the first bite of the apple with what we could get done strategically with both parties, and it’s been a five-year journey.”
And Gillibrand added that this particular issue was unique in that Carlson’s story “not only did become an unbelievable film, but it was in the public’s consciousness. And so when so many people have been so aggrieved for so long, that’s what comes to our attention first, and that’s why this first bill was so important.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called it a good day for the political system because it shows Congress can work in a bipartisan way. He thanked Carlson and others who “are brave enough to bring this out and help us get this legislation passed.”
“Because without a public outcry, sometimes Congress doesn’t act,” Grassley said. “That’s not the way it should always be, but that’s sometimes the way it is.”