LAW 834

Law, Organizing, and Low-Wage Workers

Public Interest Law

Recent decades have seen worsening economic inequality across the U.S. economy and a proliferation of low-wage jobs.  This course focuses on efforts to reverse these trends through organizing campaigns among low-wage and immigrant workers in Los Angeles with the support of creative legal strategies.

Through much of American history, immigrants have been blamed for the economic woes of the country, often reviled for depressing wages and decreasing union density.  However, a closer look reveals two critical realities.  First, the causal relationship between immigration and low-wage jobs runs in the opposite direction than has often been asserted.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, radical employment restructuring—including deindustrialization and the fissuring of traditional employment relationships—contributed to deunionization.  The decline of unions sharply reduced the quality of jobs in manufacturing and service industries, leading to an exodus of native workers and an influx of immigrants to fill vacancies in many of the lowest-paying occupations with the worst working conditions.  Deunionization and the deterioration of wages and working conditions were thus the cause, rather than the consequence, of the dramatic migration and labor market trends of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Second, far from hurting the labor movement, immigrants have proven to be central to its revitalization—particularly in Los Angeles, where more than a third of the residents are foreign-born.  Los Angeles is home to almost a quarter of the nation’s immigrants and has almost twice as many unauthorized immigrants as any other metropolitan area.  Unauthorized workers are a dominant force in the labor market.  Unauthorized immigrants, and to a lesser extent, legal immigrants, are concentrated in service, production, construction, transportation, and material moving occupations.  Violations of labor, employment, and antidiscrimination laws in these sectors are rampant.  Yet these immigrant workers have also emerged as leaders of a new labor movement in Los Angeles which has achieved remarkable progress in raising labor standards.

No effort exemplifies the immigrant-based revitalization of the labor movement better than organizing campaigns among hospitality sector workers by the progressive labor union UNITE HERE Local 11.  The hospitality sector—including hotels, restaurants, stadiums, convention centers, amusement parks, and airports—is among the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the region's economy.  Like the broader service sector, its workforce is made up largely of immigrants, women, people of color, and other economically and socially disadvantaged classes. While many hospitality jobs remain poorly paid and unstable, an increasing number have been transformed in recent years by Local 11-led campaigns into family-sustaining, middle-class jobs with decent wages, affordable family healthcare, legal service benefits, and pensions.  Addressing the needs of its membership, Local 11 has also won path-breaking protections for immigrant workers—including the right to take extended leave to adjust immigration status; protections for women workers, such as panic buttons and other security measures to prevent sexual assault for workers who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms; and protections for hotel workers laid-off during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the right to return to their jobs as the crisis subsides.  

This progress has been achieved through a combination of bottom-up grassroots organizing among workers, coalition-building with the broader community, and creative legal and policy strategies.  While the union utilizes traditional federal labor law, the “ossification” of the National Labor Relations Act over many decades has also prompted the union to turn to other areas of law to advance worker interests.  For example, the union has been instrumental in passing numerous worker protection ordinances at the local level, including living wage and housekeeper protection laws, and actively uses antidiscrimination, wage-and-hour, worker-safety laws in campaigns to address labor abuses and raise standards.  

The subject of low-wage worker organizing and the work of Local 11 specifically has been a subject of sustained and growing interest among UCLA Law students.  Local 11 has long been the primary community partner of the El Centro Labor and Economic Justice Clinic.
Over the last year, collaborating with Local 11’s legal team, the clinic has organized an extraordinarily successful effort to assist unemployed hospitality workers obtain unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic.  Responding to an urgent need, more than 75 UCLA Law students have volunteered in the program, cumulatively assisting more than 1,500 workers file UI claims and resolve post-claim problems, securing millions of vital benefits.  Local 11 has also hosted numerous UCLA students as law clerks, supervising eight law students since summer 2020 on a range of projects involving labor and employment law.  

The law school’s partnership with Local 11 has also assisted students in obtaining post-graduate employment.  Numerous law students who have clerked with the union over the years have gone on to work at one of the many labor and employment firms in the area with which the union has a relationship, as well as with the National Labor Relations Board.  In particular, the opportunity to work on work on substantive project involving legal writing, demonstrate a commitment to the cause of labor justice, and to have trusted partner’s recommendation has proven valuable to many students interested in obtaining employment in this area of practice.

Partnering with Local 11, this seminar and practicum will give students practical experience in working as community lawyers in the labor movement, and in using the law creatively to organize and represent low-wage workers.  Students will be assigned in pairs to organizing teams at Local 11, and will take leadership of the legal component of a campaign to help win collective bargaining rights at a non-union workplace or otherwise raise labor standards.  The majority of the work students will perform in the practicum will be with their placement at Local 11.  However, the classroom component of the clinic will also provide a space for us to explore key substantive areas of law, learn about the history and role of the labor movement, understand the various elements of a successful organizing drive, and discuss important philosophical and ethical issues raised in legal practice.  Another goal for this class is for the participants to develop a theoretical and practical understanding of the labor movement and new waves of organizing workers and alternative organizing structures like worker centers.  The readings, participatory exercises, videos and guest speakers/facilitators will help the class participants understand the important role of community lawyers in the labor movement and the struggle for the rights of low-wage and immigrant workers.

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