Civil Rights Act

  • July 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    In the suffocating heat of a Washington, DC July, my thoughts drift back 30 years to a sweltering Beaumont, Texas summer. A fried fish sandwich and a milkshake at the “Pig Stand,” the smell of hydrocarbons wafting from nearby petrochemical plants, and talk of football – at any level – was Beaumont back then. 84 years after Beaumont’s 1901 Spindletop gusher gave rise to the formation of Gulf Oil and Texaco, it seemed that nothing in Beaumont had moved it forward to a new identity. It was a city stuck in time.

    The biggest event in Beaumont during that summer of 1985 was the strike by several hundred black women at the A.W. Schlesinger Geriatric Center. The strikers, ranging from cooks to nursing staff, were fighting over an attempt to roll back the average wage from $4.10 to $3.90 an hour. Fresh out of law school, I had been assigned by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to assist the strikers. Our office was a wooden structure with two small offices and a multipurpose room used for union meetings, press briefings, and cooking gumbo. It was in that office that I first met Cecile Richards and Kirk Adams who were SEIU’s organizers on the ground. All of us were in our 20s. Cecile, of course, would later become president of Planned Parenthood and speak at the Democratic National Convention. Kirk rose to become an International Executive Vice President of the SEIU.

    Although I had worked with SEIU though law school, the summer of 1985 was for me a crash course in the working person. In this case the workers cleaned bed pans and cooked food for the elderly; they set work aside for Sunday church services and rose to the occasion as organizers and press spokesmen during the Schlesinger labor dispute. I learned that dignity, intelligence, and perseverance are not traits reserved for those who wear a suit and tie. As the strike turned into a lockout and dragged through the heat of the summer, from that small union hall I learned to view things from the lens of workers, not just from the technical vantage point of a labor and employment lawyer whose analysis of case law is akin to dancing on the head of a pin. I learned for myself – but of course had to explain to others – that justice under the law and fundamental fairness are not necessarily the same thing. At the end of the day, neither Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act nor the National Labor Relations Act offered any relief for the Beaumont strikers. There was law but no rights under it.

  • April 6, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice. This piece is cross-posted at NCAJ’s blog.


    The Department of Justice has released startling evidence that language barriers are leading to serious injustices in courts in North Carolina. In a March 8 letter, DOJ warned North Carolina that its ongoing failure to provide court interpreters in civil cases, and in some criminal cases, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars courts and other recipients of federal funding from providing worse services to people on the basis of English language ability.  

    DOJ reports that prosecutors in Wake and Durham counties ask people with limited English proficiency to plead guilty and then, assuming the role of “interpreters,” convey the guilty pleas to the courts. A judge relying solely on “prosecutorial interpreting” cannot know whether the person is even aware that a guilty plea is being entered, much less whether he understands the charges and consequences. When the federal government then deports the person, it cannot know whether it is deporting an innocent person. 

    The quality of justice is equally in doubt in civil cases. In 2010, a mother in Wake County lost permanent custody of her children after a trial in which she struggled to understand basic facts because she had limited command of the English language. Although she told the judge about her language difficulty, the court provided no interpreter. She also had no lawyer to help. Communication was so poor that at the end of the case she did not even understand that the judge’s ruling would cause her to lose her children.

  • September 5, 2011
    Guest Post

    by Marion G. Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and Director, Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital, at the Washington University School of Law


    Labor Day celebrates the historical contributions of the American labor movement to the lives of millions of working people. Today, however,unions are under siege. In the public sector, governors seeking to slash budgets are deauthorizing state labor laws that govern the organizing and bargaining rights of state employees. In the private sector, both the federal legislation that supports union action and the administrative body that enforces the law (the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board, respectively) are under attack. Union density is on a dramatic downswing. Are unions passé?

    Unions formed to challenge the dramatic wealth inequality between business owners and workers that characterized the nineteenth century social condition.  Most working families -- children, as well as adults -- labored under oppressive and dangerous conditions: seven days and sixty-plus hours per week, for pennies an hour, in workplaces with overtly dangerous conditions (the open flames in coal mines, for example, led to frequent explosions that maimed and killed many miners). Unions fought to change these conditions: to raise wages, to reduce hours, to enhance worker safety on the job. As they matured, unions partnered with the civil rights movement to battle entrenched racial segregation and discrimination in employment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a staunch union advocate, espoused a vision of racial equality that was premised on a call for economic justice. Indeed, King’s assassination occurred while he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.

    Today, an array of statutes protects the vast majority of workers against such abuses.  Unions played a key role in obtaining such protections, and in defending them against political challengers. They raised workers’ expectations and encouraged them to demand to be treated with dignity, lobbied for legislation that would improve the standard of living for all workers, and litigate on behalf of workers for the most worker friendly interpretations of the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a minimum wage and the right to overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 per week), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (establishing standards for safe workplaces), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (offering job protection for unpaid medical and family-care-related leave) are among the many legislative achievements that would not exist without the advocacy of labor unions. 

    As valuable as it may be, the individual rights model outlined above leaves economic issues like living wages, job security, health insurance and pension benefits to individual negotiation. But individual workers are relatively powerless to negotiate with corporate employers who hold the purse-strings to desperately needed jobs, and many workers willingly sacrifice anything to get and keep a job. Unions, however, are able to capitalize on the collective strength of the group to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that guarantee job security and establishbenefit packages that include health insurance, pension coverage, vacation pay, and paid family leave. Once obtained, these important benefits are often extended across entire industries or sectors by employers competing to attract the best workers. Further, most workers lack the knowledge of their legal rights and the resources to challenge violations of rights guaranteed in individual rights statutes. Unions thus play an important role as watchdogs for workers’ rights, and are the most effective vehicle for extending those rights beyond the minimum floor prescribed by employment legislation.

    Thus, labor unions are widely credited with creating and sustaining a strong middle class in America. Autoworkers, steelworkers, coalminers, nurses, teachers, and many others enjoy a middle-class standard of living because of their collectively-bargained wage and benefit packages. 

  • November 11, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Kerri L. Stone, Assistant Professor, Florida International University College of Law
    I am in the midst of writing an article about the hostility and skepticism with which the judiciary has treated employment discrimination plaintiffs, especially when it comes to the premature foreclosure of their cases through summary judgment. Thus, I was profoundly disappointed, but not surprised, when I read the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals's recently issued decision in Smith v. Fairview Ridges Hospital.

    The majority in this case affirmed a grant of summary judgment on, among others, plaintiff Sheila Smith's claim of a racially hostile work environment despite a string of incidents, comments, and affronts that appear to have been fraught with racial animus. These include a conversation at a potluck meal to which Smith had brought fried chicken; when one co-worker asked who brought it, another replied "Who else." They also include a picture of Buckwheat, a character from the 1920s short film series, "Our Gang," being affixed to a bulletin board in the workplace among childhood pictures of employees with the caption "Guess who this is;" Smith was the only African American employee whose childhood picture had not already been posted.

    During a subsequent confrontation with another co-worker, Smith had a chart grabbed from her hands as a co-worker exclaimed ‘[T]hese black aides don't know what they are doing." On more than one occasion, Smith also observed co-workers viewing material on workplace computers that she classified as racially offensive. On one occasion, she was invited to look at the contents of what they were viewing, and she saw t-shirts that said "Guns don't kill people, only angry minorities kill people;" and "How do you stop five ******* from raping a white girl? You throw them a basketball." On still another occasion, Smith overheard one coworker ask another (about Smith) "if she's unhappy here, why does she come back," and the other responded, "Just like a dog, you beat them and abuse them, they still come back. Just like any good runaway slave would." Smith reported all of these incidents, along with others, to her immediate supervisor, but in most cases, no corrective action was taken, and when it was, the offending employees were merely reminded that personal internet use in the workplace was inappropriate. Smith also proffered, among other evidence, the testimony of a co-worker, that she had overheard two other co-workers discussing Smith, and saying that she "needs to go back to the ghetto where she came from."

  • January 28, 2010
    Former U.S. Senator from Maryland Charles ‘Mac' Mathias Jr., died Monday of complications from Parkinson's disease. Mathias, a moderate Republican who "clashed with the Nixon and Reagan administrations," was called by his colleagues "the conscience of the Senate," The New York Times reported. Both The Times and The Washington Post noted his leading efforts to advance civil rights. Mathias, who also served on the ACS Board of Advisors, "played a major role in drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act," and "was a key supporter of later measures on voting and housing and of efforts to thwart Reagan administration efforts to roll back those victories," The Times noted.

    Mathias served in both chambers of Congress and in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he voted in favor of Maryland ratifying the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The Post reported that during his eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mathias "established a reputation as a leading figure in the small but effective band of moderate Republicans who worked with Democrats to forge measures ending discrimination in housing, improving welfare, making the C&O Canal into a national park, promoting civil rights and championing home rule and full congressional representation for the District of Columbia." The newspaper also noted that Mathias "expanded his list of legislative concerns, pressing for campaign finance controls ...."

    In a press statement, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who once worked for Mathias, said, "He was an early champion of civil rights, a dedicated and respected advocate for the North Atlantic Alliance ...." Rep. Van Hollen concluded that Mathias "will be deeply missed, but his legacy is all around us in the more perfect union that he helped build, the shared values of democracy and the rule of law he helped strengthen, and the natural heritage of Maryland that he helped preserve."

    The American Constitution Society notes with sadness his passing.