By Jared A. Ellias (Bion M. Gregory Chair in Business Law and Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law) and George Triantis (Professor of Law and Business, Stanford Law School)
It is widely recognized that bankruptcy law can stymie regulatory enforcement and present challenges for governments when regulated businesses file for Chapter 11. It is less-widely understood that bankruptcy law can present governments with opportunities to advance policy goals if they are willing to adopt tactics traditionally associated with activist investors, a strategy we call “government bankruptcy activism.” The bankruptcy filings by Chrysler and General Motors in 2009 are a famous example: the government of the United States used the bankruptcy process to help both auto manufacturers resolve their financial distress while promoting the policy objectives of protecting union workers and addressing climate change. A decade later, the government of California applied its bargaining power and used an innovative state law in the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Chapter 11 case to protect climate policies and the victims of wildfires. These examples illustrate that, by tapping into the bankruptcy system, governments gain access to the exceptional powers that a debtor enjoys under bankruptcy law, which can complement the traditional tools of appropriations and regulation to facilitate and accelerate policy outcomes. This strategy is especially useful in times of urgency and policy paralysis, when government bankruptcy activism can provide a pathway past veto players in the political system. However, making policy through the bankruptcy system presents potential downsides as well, as it may also allow governments to evade democratic accountability and obscure the financial losses that stakeholders are forced to absorb to help fund those policy outcomes.
Happily, ultimate resolution of the Blackjewel case later in autumn saw the employees made whole and the company investigated for fraud. But this solution was anything but assured before it was reached, and employees in any event suffered substantial harm in the form of disrupted family budgets and substantial uncertainty as to ultimate recovery for months – including, critically, just as a new school year was commencing for employee families’ children.
It would seem well advised, then, to put in place a more permanent and reliable process for cases like that of Blackjewel and its employees. What is needed is a solution that is uniformly applicable, reliable, and known in advance such that all concerned parties can bargain and plan ‘in the shadow’ of the regime. Our present arrangements are subject to vagaries of state law and state budgets that vary across state jurisdictional space and fiscal time. The obvious solution to the difficulties raised by such variance is to subject this realm, like that of bankruptcy itself, to federal legislation.
A bill I have recently drafted and advocated aims to ‘fit the bill’ in effect called-for by the Blackjewel affair. It does so by (a) assigning the Department of Labor (‘DOL’) a permanent representation role in future employer insolvencies; (b) federalizing the employer bonding requirements now found only in inconsistently administered state laws; (c) establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund to tide employees over while bankruptcy proceedings are pending; and (d) holding employing-firms’ executive officers personally liable for violations of the Act’s requirements.
The reason for DOL representation and oversight is to ensure that employees have a coherent and powerful representative ‘at the table’ during insolvency proceedings – one that is endowed with oversight authority not only during, but in advance of insolvencies.
The reason for federalizing employer bonding requirements is that states often vary over time in respect of the seriousness with which they administer such requirements, presumably in part for reasons sounding in lobbying pressures and ideology but also for reasons of basic capacity – large employers, after all, often are ‘bigger’ than the states that would supervise them.
The reason for establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund is presumably obvious. What made Blackjewel’s travails so hard on employees was precisely the fact that ultimate resolution was long in coming, while employee families’ daily living expenses couldn’t ‘wait.’ Against such a backdrop it makes sense for DOL to do for employees what our Federal Reserve does for financial institutions while insolvency and consolidation proceedings are underway – viz., provide tide-over funding.
Finally, the reason for holding executive officers personally liable for compliance with the Act’s requirements should be obvious as well. For again as in the case of financial institutions, so here the only surefire way of ‘incentivizing’ firms to comply is to incentivize those through whom all firms act – their executives, as the term ‘executive’ (derived from ‘execute’) itself suggests. Diffuse shareholders, who often lack power over corporate officers, and insider shareholders, who often have interests at odds with the interests of non-executive employees in any event, simply aren’t up to the task.
Employing firms, their executives and their owners have enjoyed multiple forms of state patronage for decades in our nation, while employees have in general enjoyed only sporadic assistance from public sector institutions and, less now than any time since the early 20th century, labor unions. This Act will help further a cause that’s increasingly now recognized once again to be both morally and economically compelling: That is the task of protecting the interests of our own productive citizenry – our labor force.