The First New Provision
Phil called the toll-free number he’d been given, and after the usual twenty-minute hold time, reached a human being who explained that the tow truck driver really did have the right to haul away his car. It didn’t matter that the car had been parked in his driveway or that it had been completely paid for, and it certainly didn’t matter that it was the only form of transportation he and his wife had for getting back and forth from work. What mattered is that a new provision had been added to the wording of the contract Phil had signed for a home improvement loan seven years earlier. Phil had found the company a nightmare to deal with, and on paying off the last installment more than five years ago, had gone on the website and made his displeasure known.
Phil no longer had an active contract with that company and had not thought of them since severing ties, but the company had gone back over its list of old customers and retroactively inserted a clause allowing them to seize the assets of any customer who publicly defamed their services in any manner. Phil was allowed to appeal, but only with the company’s in-house arbitrator, and it would likely be a waste of time, as the case was so open and shut. Outraged, Phil demanded to speak with somebody higher up. The representative assured him that this was his option but added that Phil would need to provide a credit card to qualify for this premium service at the rate of $3.75 per minute, thirty minutes minimum.
• • • •
The Second New Provision
Phil’s friend the lawyer, who seemed to be packing up his office, advised him that there were no grounds for a suit. The nation’s corporations had spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last ten years, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to alter contracts in any way that benefited them and had, in the end, gotten all the concessions they wanted. The chief limitation of this new power was of course that it could only be exercised against individual consumers of below a particular income, as the alternative would be an out-of-control orgy of giant corporations re-writing past agreements with other giant corporations in asset seizures, and that would lead to anarchy. Nobody would ever be able to get any business done. But Phil and his wife fell below the cut-off point and were therefore vulnerable to any punitive fee considered appropriate by anybody they’d ever done any business with, at any point in their lives.
“I wouldn’t take this any further than you already have,” the lawyer said, re-checking his airline tickets for the third time in the course of the conversation. “You’ve already violated the new clause requiring you to use the company’s in-house arbitrator.” But my car, Phil said. How am I going to get to work without my car? “I sympathize,” the lawyer said. “But in the eyes of the law you really should have thought of this before. Now, please leave before I get penalized for talking to you.”
• • • •
The Third New Provision
Phil’s new commute to work involved two buses and a seven-block walk. He missed a vital transfer and as a result walked in forty minutes late, his coat dripping from the torrential downpour that had decided to add to his troubles just before he reached the overhang of the firm’s front entrance. When he reached his desk, there was a yellow sticky note on his monitor advising him of a meeting in the Human Resources department.
He trudged down the hall in a fog of increasing dread and found the HR director and his immediate supervisor waiting for him, with the news that the company had just added a new clause to his employment contract. His salary was being cut by one third, retroactive to his first day at work thirteen years ago, which meant that he would be responsible for paying back every additional cent he had earned in the interim. They knew that he did not have the savings in cash and wanted it known that the company was putting a lien on his house to resolve the debt.
• • • •
The Fourth New Provision
Phil was late for work again, and his bosses let him know that they understood the difficulty he was having with his new commute. However, they also wanted him to know that they could not abide lateness. The new provisions permitted them to levy tremendous fines for every offense, which could in theory exceed anything he actually earned. However, they had a solution. The company was having this same difficulty with many of their recently vehicle-deprived employees and was responding by turning the third floor into a dormitory to house them during the week. He and a group of the others were taken on a tour. The dormitory was one large room under overhead fluorescents, which would soon be lined with bunk beds and storage lockers. A nominal fee for the accommodations and another for food would be deducted from paychecks at the end of every week.
Phil said that he didn’t want to live at his office. His boss said, “I can understand that, but you now owe money to the company and will have to abide by the terms of the contract you authorized by taking on this debt.” He went on to say that there would be significant penalties for noncompliance.
• • • •
The Fifth New Provision
Phil received permission to return home for some belongings and found the front locks changed and his wife gone. The house was now occupied by a uniformed guard who had stuffed all of Phil’s clothing into big black garbage bags and would not allow him past the front room, which was now lined with rusty fifty-gallon drums. The guard informed Phil that additional fines levied by the finance company, in accordance with several supplemental provisions enacted just yesterday, amounted to several times the value of his home, and that their attempt to seize it under the terms now specified in the contract had proved in conflict with the retroactive provisions of several other contracts Phil had entered into with other parties, including the power company, the internet provider, and his own place of employment. The ownership was now being adjudicated. Phil had also been charged with several counts of tortious interference and would no doubt be arrested shortly. Phil’s wife had already been taken away by the private police force of her first employer, a fast food chain she’d worked for a couple of months during the summer she turned eighteen.
No, the guard didn’t know what the charges were, but the Supreme Court had ruled that corporate police forces did not have to provide specific charges at the time of arrest as long as a retroactive provision justifying them could be provided within forty-eight hours. The guard did know that this residence was a chemical storage facility and that if Phil did not leave the premises at once he would be charged with trespassing.
• • • •
The Sixth New Provision
One of Phil’s co-workers, a man who still owed the company many thousands of dollars, was caught fleeing for the border. The company police dragged him back, and issued a brand-new contractual provision that attempts to escape were grounds for transferring all prior agreements to a new employer. When the co-worker found out what he would now be doing for a living, his screams were audible throughout the entire building. Hours after they dragged him away, one of the middle managers made a visit to the dormitory and explained that everybody there was in violation of an even newer addendum that prohibited any employee from leaving or quitting or taking time off, unless they were issued specific permission by a majority vote of the board of directors. Because some people insisted on flouting this rule and thus ruining the honor system, the company was now forced to institute some stringent security procedures. Everybody would be fitted with a bracelet that would track their every movement. The manufacturing cost of this bracelet would be added to their debt. The costs of monitoring them, like the cost of housing them and the cost of feeding them, would be added to the amount deducted from their paychecks. Workers already in deficit, like Phil, would be subject to further penalties. The cries of outrage and dismay did not move the middle manager, who reminded everybody that it was after lights out and that they would have to get up early in the morning for their fitting.
• • • •
The Seventh New Provision
The two companies with the greatest claim on Phil’s massive debt settled their conflicting interests by requiring him to work eight hours for one before being driven across town to work eight hours at the other. It took them four days to decide which would now have the responsibility of feeding him, and therefore, during that time, neither did. He started fading out in the middle of conversations, negatively affecting his productivity to the point where they created a retroactive provision allowing them to fit him with a shock collar. Any time he was inactive for more than two minutes, he got jolted. The cost of the collar and, of course, the cost of the electricity, were both added to his debt at only a 200% markup. He threw a punch at one of his supervisors and was punished by being locked in the company hot box up on the roof. Afterward he was beaten severely and told that he would now be prosecuted for assault.
• • • •
The Eighth New Provision
Phil’s holding cell was nowhere near any municipal or state or federal courthouse. His employer had created a judicial division that operated on company property and operated under corporate rules, with one of those rules respecting the provision that no employee was permitted to testify against the employer in any venue, including this one. The dispute was naturally settled in the company’s favor, without Phil uttering so much as a single word. The resulting penalties and liens against Phil brought his debts up to the level where it was decided no amount of labor on his part could ever possibly resolve them. Besides, he had already proven himself a troublemaker and rabble-rouser and a bad influence on everybody else. It would certainly cost far more to retain him as an employee than he would ever able to earn back with services rendered. After long and sometimes contentious negotiation, Phil’s employers and the various shareholders in Phil elected to cut their losses and transfer his contracts to an overseas broker willing to pay ten cents on the dollar.
• • • •
The Last Provision
Phil and a large number of other scofflaws were driven out to the coast and loaded into a cargo ship headed for ports unknown. He was able to spare one last look at the city where he had lived all his life before the sticks wielded by his new employers prodded him across the bloody deck and down the ramp into the darkness of the cargo hold, where, in the seconds before he was chained to his bunk, he was just barely able to make out the forms of dozens of others, coughing and moaning and struggling in vain against their bonds as they began their journey toward a place that many would never live to see. He thought, but could not be certain, that he heard a gasp and his wife calling out his name; he thought, but could not be certain, that this was as far as he would sink, the worst of the indignities he would be required to suffer. The one thing he did not do was scream, much as every ounce of him wanted to, because he had learned everything he had ever needed to know about the penalties that went along with defaming those who had always owned him . . . and because there was no telling what further provisions his newest employers would write into his contract next.