Marginal Workers: How Legal Fault Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them without Protection

Marginal Workers: How Legal Fault Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them without Protection

Marginal Workers: How Legal Fault Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them without Protection

Marginal Workers: How Legal Fault Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them without Protection

Excerpt

In the late 1990s, I worked as a union-side labor lawyer in Southern California. It was work I thoroughly enjoyed for a few years after law school. I was able to work with clients that I respected who were trying to win a modicum of dignity in the workplace. I wanted to be part of the labor movement in some way, but never could see myself as an organizer or rabble-rouser. But I felt that I could use the law as a way to improve working conditions and empower people.

As with most who aspire to be lawyers for a cause (or “cause lawyers” as Austin Sarat and Stuart Scheingold have dubbed them), I wanted to use the law to further long-lasting social change. And as with other cause lawyers, after several cases I began to wonder exactly what kind of impact I was having on the larger cause of worker rights. My cases were the typical diet of a labor side lawyer—workers denied the right to organize, unionized workers with arbitration cases, and the vindication of statutory rights. These cases followed a familiar pattern—employer misconduct, judicial reprobation, and then an inability to collect anything because of employer insolvency or intransigence. Like other labor lawyers before me, I started searching for the larger meaning of what I was doing. I was fortunate to work for a firm that prized sophisticated, ethical advocacy and a client-centered approach, but I wanted to try to have a different kind of impact.

I had always aspired to an academic career, and the time seemed right to make a move to teaching. After a few years of cases that failed to change most employers’ ingrained resistance to workers’ rights, I did a research fellowship at the University of Wisconsin law school to probe deeper into the relationship between women, people of color, and their unions. The result was a study called “New Voices at Work: Race and Gender Identity . . .

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