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Law Students Connect with Workers, Community in Summer of Service

Law Students Connect with Workers, Community in Summer of Service
By Barbara Doherty

Law student Patrick Callahan recently joined an organizing team in Alabama, home-visiting the families of workers at a limestone mine who are weighing whether to join the Mine Workers (UMWA). Those conversations were tense.

“Hardly anyone complained about the pay, but they said they were tired of being treated inhumanely and demeaned by their superiors on a daily basis,” Callahan says.

Callahan calls the experience of sitting in workers’ homes humbling. “The simple truth is that they put their jobs and their families' livelihood at risk by stepping up for what they believe in.”

Hundreds of miles north, law student Sonya Mehta walked some 30 blocks from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) District One office in Lower Manhattan to Union Square to join a rally in support of locked-out Consolidated Edison workers, members of Utility Workers (UWUA) Local 1-2.

“I wanted to learn about the dispute and how CWA can support these workers,” Mehta says.

Callahan and Mehta are in the midst of three of the most intense years they’ll experience in their lives—law school. They’re serving summer internships like many law students do. And yes, they spend considerable time in libraries and conference rooms, like most law interns and clerks.

But the comparisons end there.

2012 LSUS

As participants in the AFL-CIO’s Law Student Summer (LSUS) program, Mehta, Callahan and 10 others “are learning, hands-on, how they can make a difference in people’s lives,” says AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Nancy Schiffer, who coordinates LSUS. 

LSUS’ sister initiative, the Minority Outreach Program, taps into the extensive network of some 1,900 union attorneys who belong to the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee (LCC) and encourages law students of color to apply for summer clerkship opportunities at LCC law firms and legal departments throughout the country.

The LSUS and the Minority Outreach Program internships are no fillers for vacationing office support staff. They are all about boots on the ground, with interns fanning out across the country to help workers gain a voice on the job and help unions represent members and contribute to the community.

The LSUS interns, at the cusp of careers that could take them in many directions, get a 10-week immersion into labor law at the workplace level, an understanding of labor’s role in society and real connections with workers, organizers, negotiators and community activists. Through their hands-on experience, these young men and women are helping further unions’ partnerships with neighborhood and community groups, giving voice to varied approaches to winning solid living standards and expanding unions’ efforts to reach young people.

The 28 participants of this year’s Minority Outreach Program first took part in the program’s annual Law Clerk Networking Conference, which includes presentations on labor law practice, union organizing and representation, politics and legislation. The program also matches participants with mentors for continued guidance and support.

“The MOP is already influencing the way I look at my future,” says Simone Sebastian, a Florida native and rising second-year student at Howard University School of Law. Clerking this summer at the Washington, D.C., firm, Butsavage & Associates, Sebastian worked for seven years at a restaurant prior to entering law school—“so I appreciate that they’re trying to fight for people’s rights on the job,” she says.

In addition to taking a summer class, Sebastian has been researching and contributing to briefs and memos on topics, including the duty of fair representation, just cause terminations and discrimination.

Those are some of the meat-and-potatoes issues that weave through the work of every union—and the workload of LSUS and Minority Outreach interns.

  • LSUS intern Brandon Ortiz is spending the summer with the New Mexico chapter of AFT in Albuquerque, helping develop master contract language for a new affiliate, Early Educators United. He also is involved in the AFT New Mexico’s campaign challenging Gov. Susana Martinez’s attempt to impose a new teacher evaluation plan across the state. “I’ve been able to dive right in to some real, substantive work,” Ortiz says. “It’s been excellent.”
  • Jessica Witt, an LSUS intern from Oregon, is assigned to Local 1245 of the Electrical Workers (IBEW) in Vacaville, Calif. One of Witt’s assignments involved writing an unfair labor practice charge that included a description of facts and legal analysis for a termination case. The fired workers are struggling with medical and child care bills, and meeting with them was emotional, Witt says. “I had never had that kind of face-to-face experience, and it was hard.” But that is partly what has made the internship “fantastic,” she adds.
  • Matthew Breunig knew about LSUS before he entered law school and targeted it as a must-have internship. He is working in Portland, Ore., for Machinists (IAM) District 24 in three areas—corporate research for an organizing committee, working with a team that home-visits workers who are considering forming a union and basic legal research work involving an arbitration case. “It’s a cool mixture,” Breunig says.

LSUS is in its twelfth year and has created opportunities for more than 100 interns, Schiffer says. Many alumni now work at union-side law firms (some as partners), in national and local union legal departments, with the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor and with worker organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The same is true for many of the more than 300 students who have participated in the Minority Outreach Program Networking Conference, says Angelia Wade Stubbs, AFL-CIO associate general counsel and MOP coordinator.

However their careers unfold, LSUS and Minority Outreach Program participants bring their summer experiences back to their schools, their families and their communities.

Mehta, a California native, will return to the City University of New York after spending her summer absorbed in CWA District One’s fast-paced legal department. “I’ve been researching how unions can negotiate over company codes of conduct,” Mehta says. “I’ve had to think hard and push myself” to look for novel legal theories. “We have to be innovative to help support organizing—people’s lives are involved.”

And back over at the UMWA District 17 office in Charleston, W.V., Callahan says he has had rich experiences engaging with local communities. During a daylong UMWA festival, Callahan talked with Madison, W.V., residents as he staffed a tent. Visiting with miners, their families and the public, he answered questions and engaged in discussions about environmental issues, the 2012 election campaign and worksite problems—and residents took home UMWA T-shirts and bumper stickers that would remind them of who watches out for coal miners.

The internship has “opened my eyes to how hard these people have to fight for workers’ rights,” Callahan says. 

That statement illustrates the value of both programs, according to UMWA attorney Chuck Donnelly. He is supervising Callahan this summer and has worked with a handful of LSUS interns in past years. His seasoned eyes appreciate the law internships, along with the organizer-training Union Summer, as part of the farm system for the future of the union movement.

“By the time Pat is done, he will have seen some negotiations and worked through grievance hearings,” Donnelly says. “Soon we’ll get him underground on a mine tour.”

“Law Student Summer exposes these interns to the practical side of unionism—and the interns bring an enthusiasm that I like to see.”

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