May 27, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
Where will the next generation of labor lawyers come from?
The Philadelphia-based Peggy Browning Fund is fertilizing the field with fellowships. Last year, it gave 70 first- and second-year law students stipends to spend their summers working at unions, worker centers, the U.S. Department of Labor, union-side law firms and other nonprofit organizations, aimed at encouraging them to seek careers in labor law and giving them the experience and connections to get jobs in it, says development director Rhonda Gelman Kelley.
“They’re the Federalist Society of the left,” says Jon Bloom, head of the Workers Defense League in New York. “They’re training the lawyers for our side.”
The law students’ work ranges from research and writing to walking picket lines as legal advisers and observers, says Kelley. Places they went last year included the national headquarters of the Teamsters, American Federation of Teachers, Laborers International, and SEIU in Washington; the UAW in Detroit, the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco; worker centers in New Orleans and Los Angeles; legal services organizations in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia; and community groups such as Make the Road New York.
The fund was founded in 1997 by Philadelphia lawyer Joseph Lurie, in memory of his wife, Margaret A. Browning, the first union-side lawyer appointed to the National Labor Relations Board. She “wanted to be the William Brennan of the NLRB,” but died of cancer at 46.
The first group of five fellows went out in 1999, and almost 600 have passed through the program since then. More than 250 are now working for unions or union-side law firms, says Gelman Kelley.
The students receive $6,500 for 10 weeks of work and attending the fund’s national conference in Linthicum, Maryland in the fall. The workshops at it, taught by law professors and working lawyers, cover the basics of labor and immigration law plus current hot topics such as day laborers and the minimum wage. They’re intended to “fill the gap” in legal education, says Gelman Kelley, as schools have cut back on teaching labor law. The fund is also expanding its regional conferences, held in places like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.
Its financial support comes mainly from unions—the Steelworkers are a key donor—and union-side law firms, with some from foundations and occasional donations from management-side law firms. Some people complain that looks bad, but “we have an annual budget,” says Gelman Kelley.
It also raises money by hosting dinners in five cities a year, with awards given to three “social-justice champions,” usually a union leader, a union-side lawyer, and an arbitrator. This year’s New York awards, given in April, went to Terrence Moore of Ironworkers Local 46, veteran labor lawyer Richard A. Levy, and Hezekiah Brown, former chair of the New York State Mediation Board.
The fund has received some criticism from people who say it’s encouraging law students to sacrifice their careers by going into a shrinking union movement, says Gelman Kelley. “We’d like people to understand that the labor movement is not dying,” she responds. “There are jobs out there.”