Chinese Class Action: Take the Boss Hostage

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With U.S. business owners celebrating the Supreme Court’s embrace of “the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration” and hastening to add arbitration clauses with class action waivers to the stack of first-day paperwork for new hires to sign, news from China suggests an approach far more aggressive than anything Rule 23 contemplates. Charles Starnes, co-owner of Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, arrived at his Beijing factory last week intending to lay off 30 employees. However, Starnes was preempted by the employees, who rather than being escorted out of the building by an officious HR employee, took Starnes hostage. The employees/captors have since benefitted from the Chinese government’s apparent indifference, if not its affirmative support, as Starnes remains in captivity.

Accounts vary as to exactly what happened, though it seems that Starnes’ meeting with employees went awry like an unsuccessful mediation writ large, with employees having expected a more generous severance package. Instead of responding with the usual counter-offer, they put Starnes in something that looks a lot like a conventional jail, albeit with more elegant bar beveling than is usually seen in prisons. Apparently, according to the Washington Post, “a lot of CEOs get taken hostage in China.”

The paper documents a similar incident that took place in Shanghai, in January of this year, but no others, noting only that workers taking their boss hostage “doesn’t make for international headlines.” This time, however, it did make headlines. Even so, Starnes remains in captivity, as no international groundswell has demanded his release. No word on whether Starnes will be required to resolve the dispute with his captors under the efficient, streamlined auspices of arbitration.