Law, Lawyers, and Labor: The United Farm Workers' Legal Strategy in the 1960s and 1970s and the Role of Law in Union Organizing Today
Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law, Vol. 8, p. 1, 2005
73 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2006
What does law offer labor? It depends. Today's discussions of the NLRA from the union perspective are tinged with desperation about what law does for and to organizing. In despair, however, workers and their institutions risk losing sight of critically valuable lessons that emerge from a long view of the labor movement about the varied ways that law can interact with collective efforts to improve working conditions. This article offers new insights on that front, both through a brief overview of the changing relationship between the labor movement, law, and lawyers during the twentieth century, and, more deeply, through an exploration of fifteen years in the specific experience of one union, the United Farm Workers ("the UFW"), between 1965 and 1980. Many are aware of the basic outlines of the UFW story. Few realize that lawyers and a powerful combination of legal and organizing strategies played important roles in the United Farm Workers' victories.
I analyze the UFW's legal strategy as an example of social justice lawyering that offers concrete lessons not only for the labor movement but for other organizing efforts today. I focus in particular on the cyclical push-pull between the attractions of lawyering and organizing outside of a governing framework and on the powerful urge to enshrine the right to organize in law, evident in the experience of the UFW and recurring again in labor unions' work today. Throughout, my argument is this: used thoughtfully (and often unconventionally), with full awareness of its pitfalls, law can play an important supporting role in the rebirth of a movement, both in the workplace and beyond.
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