Tag Archives: migrant labor

Closing the Circle

On New Years Eve, I will retire from the Labor Department after nearly 31 years in the Office of the Solicitor. My interest in workers’ rights began in my childhood as I heard stories of workers compensation cases my father litigated in the 1930s and 40s. He told stories of meat packers with frozen fingers and other such tales but the most legendary was the Case of the Living Dead Women, the story of the radium dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois. The dramatic story (which has now been turned into a wonderful play, These Shining Lives) is captured in a website I have created from hundreds of original newspaper reports on this groundbreaking litigation, establishing the right of workers to seek relief years after the onset of illnesses of which they were not aware. The website is at http://lgrossman.com/pics/radium/. There is also a new novel, Radium Halos, by Shelley Stout which explores the plight of the radium girls and goes beyond it.

It was a winding trail from my father’s death when I was an adolescent, through ten years of teaching in Chicago’s inner city and a few months with an insurance defense law firm, but then a few months before my daughter was born in 1979, I was hired by the Chicago Office of the Solicitor in the waning months of the Carter administration. (An especially timely reminder this week is that the FEHB did not consider my wife’s pregnancy a pre-existing condition and in effect, as I have often joked, I joined Labor in time to pay for the labor.)

It has been my privilege to work in a field that has allowed me to follow in my father’s footsteps, not only as a lawyer but in the field of workers rights. There have been a few dramatic moments and many contrasts, such as the day I picked up a check for more than six million dollars, resolving an early ERISA case involving mob related healthcare and pension plans. On the same day I found in the mail a $300 check resolving a MSPA case (or perhaps it was still FLCRA).

Every lawyer, if he or she is lucky enough, may have the opportunity to place one brick in the wall of justice. For me it was the Lauritzen case in the mid 80s, establishing that migrant workers were employees, not independent contractors. I am especially grateful to the latitude given me by my office to work not only with Wage and Hour in both Wisconsin and Texas, but also Legal Action of Wisconsin and Texas Rural Legal Aid, in litigating this Fair Labor Standards Act, which also included Child Labor issues. I also must thank Paula Coleman, now retired from the FLS division, for being willing to work so closely with a young staff attorney from Chicago on the appeal to the Seventh Circuit.

Over the years I have been able to work in almost every area litigated by the SOL, from MSPA to MSHA, from OFCCP to OSHA. I am especially proud of some of the work with regard to union democracy under the LMRDA. In the right hands, enforcing the right of union members to fair elections is, I strongly believe, a pro-union activity.

I have been privileged to work with wonderful investigators and management from so many agencies, Wage and Hour, EBSA, OSHA, OFCCP. I have come to recognize the dedication and sometimes zeal on the front lines and the role lawyers can take in harnessing that energy in ways that lead to effective enforcement.

When I came to this office it was still under the leadership of one of the pioneers in our field, Herman Grant, who was Regional Attorney before there were regional solicitors. Carin Clauss was the Solicitor of Labor. She continued the fight in amicus briefs filed when administrations changed and began to reverse positions carefully developed by the pioneers in this Department. The values they instilled informed my view of the role of this Agency. The lawyers of the Chicago Office continue in that tradition.