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.