A country-wide wave of labor-organizing coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on how we conceptualize the ‘workplace’ have created a watershed moment for labor rights and justice in America. Amidst this backdrop, three University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students are spending their summers advocating for the rights of workers across a breadth of industries in Philadelphia and Chicago as Peggy Browning Fellows.
Each year, the Peggy Browning Fund sponsors fellowships for law students who dedicate their summers to advancing workers’ rights in labor unions, workers’ rights organizations, and other non-profit legal organizations doing similar work.
The Fund is named to honor Margaret “Peggy” Browning L’78, who dedicated her career to the advancement of labor rights. After spending several years practicing labor law in Philadelphia, Browning was appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by President Bill Clinton in 1994, where she served until her death at the age of 46. In a joint statement, Bill and Hillary Clinton praised Browning’s work, saying, “Peggy contributed greatly to constructive and harmonious labor relations.”
“The feeling of a contract win or of people winning their first union is electric — it’s so emotional being a part of people standing up and reclaiming power that is rightfully theirs,” said Peggy Browning Fellow Paul T. Sindberg L’23. “The Peggy Browning Fund has trained generations of labor leaders, has created a great network, and is an awesome opportunity for folks who have an interest in labor law or labor organizing to get involved.”
Sindberg described labor organizing as “building a boat as you’re rowing it.”
The major role that organized labor has played in their life is not lost on Sindberg. Growing up in a union household had an enormous impact not only on their outlook on and awareness of labor organizing, but also on their health and well-being fundamentally.
“My dad is a member of a labor union, and when I was in undergrad, the graduate workers at my school actually organized and won their union,” Sindberg said. “As a part of that, one of my colleagues won gender-affirming healthcare, and it was such an emotional and beautiful process. It also helped me realize that the reason I was able to access health care that affirmed my own gender and sexuality growing up was because of my dad’s union contract. It was cool to see the impact that unions could have, not just on workers, but also on social justice causes generally.”
Following undergrad, Sindberg began working as a labor organizer, where they gained valuable insight into the ways unions functioned and the challenges unions faced. The desire to better understand those challenges — and find solutions to them — from a legal perspective inspired Sindberg to apply to law school.
This summer, Sindberg is working at the Chicago News Guild, an organization of which Sindberg’s grandfather was a long-time member. In their capacity as a Peggy Browning Fellow, Sindberg has been compiling research to assist organizers in their decision-making, sitting next to organizers at contract negotiations for benefits for their members, and supporting the Guild in creating and unrolling new organizing campaigns.
“This opportunity is giving me a good excuse to use all of the tools in the toolkit as I figure out how I can help mobilize members of this local to surmount an obstacle, rather than just filing a legal challenge,” Sindberg said. “It’s been a fabulous program thus far, and I’m excited to be working with an organization that has meant so much to my own family. I came to law school to continue labor organizing, and I’m really excited to be getting a glimpse into what my career in this space is going to look like.”
Building Essential Skillsets
Peggy Browning Fellow Julian Lutz L’24, who is working with the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 19 in South Philadelphia, had also been thinking about labor organization for years prior to attending law school. His grandfather was a steelworker and union member, and for a time, his mother was a union ice-cream truck driver; however, it was seeing the risks and harms his mother was exposed to in her non-union job in a lab that Lutz credits with energizing him and encouraging him to view situations through the lens of labor justice.
When Lutz himself first entered the workforce, he worked at a grocery store, where staff morale was low and team members felt isolated from one another. Lutz took note of this and questioned whether the messaging discouraging teamwork among employees was intentional. Later, as he began working for an affordable housing organization after college, the tenets of labor organization were still in his mind; to him, it seemed like movements around affordable housing and labor rights could benefit from intersecting.
“There wasn’t much interaction between the worlds of affordable housing and labor organizing, even though they have a lot of things in common. For example, when community groups negotiate community benefits agreements, one of the things they often want is for local residents in poor areas to get access to union membership. Having both this strong personal stake and this professional academic curiosity about how these two things could overlap is what led me here,” Lutz said. “What’s kept me motivated is how much I enjoy what we’re doing. The victories bring out your competitive side: there are winners and losers, and people fight hard to be on the winning side because there’s so much at stake and it means a lot to their families.”
For Lutz, his experience with the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 19 has entailed immensely varied work, including gaining familiarity not only with relevant laws, but also with how unions function. This summer, Lutz has assisted in reading and analyzing benefits contracts, filed Right to Know requests to ensure that contractors are following wage regulations, and attended union meetings, wherein members debate and vote on necessary contract terms.
Moreover, Lutz has also spent some time on the picket lines, where he has enjoyed building connections with, and learning from, the community.
“You get to see the way the community reacts to the union: people honk and support, or people come up to say, ‘My son’s in the union!’ You get to meet the members, and you get to hear what the union means to them,” Lutz said. “You also get to pass the time with the organizers, who are some of the most knowledgeable people about this work, because they’ve lived it, they’ve done it, and they sell it to other people. Every day is a new experience, and it’s been great so far.”
Peggy Browning Fellow Juan P. Madrigal L’24 is spending his summer at Community Legal Services, where a large portion of his work involves assisting low-income Philadelphians pursue wage-theft claims.
For Madrigal, fighting for fair labor practices feels highly personal. After immigrating to America when he was eight, Madrigal recalled feeling like he couldn’t use his name on job applications in the mostly white community where he grew up. Then, after studying Human Development and Family Studies as an undergraduate, Madrigal worked at Goodwill Industries, running job readiness training programs for individuals with disabilities and/or who were impacted by the criminal justice system; both populations faced substantial barriers to entering the workforce. Recognizing the ways in which employers can — and sometimes do — covertly treat job applicants unfairly deeply bothered Madrigal, and he wanted to find a way to pursue justice.
“Disability-based employment discrimination can be very hard to prove, because it’s easy for employers to say, ‘Actually we don’t have roles available right now,’ or, ‘We already had an offer out,’ even when it seems pretty obvious that the real reason the applicant didn’t get the job was because of the way they looked, the way they spoke, or the difficulty they sometimes had in communicating,” Madrigal said. “We didn’t have the types of resources in Northeast PA to say ‘Hey, you’re engaging in employment discrimination. We’re going to a legal aid organization to set this right,’ so to actually be at CLS now and to serve individuals who are socio-economically vulnerable feels really great. To try to bring about justice and to act as an accessible resource for people locally is wonderful.”
Madrigal’s primary role at CLS has involved interviewing clients, drafting demand letters, drafting arbitration memos, and negotiating with employers to help clients recover wages to which they are lawfully entitled. He has also assisted with criminal record expungement clinics, which underscore the complicated connections between the criminal justice system and employment equity. In further exploration of that intersection, Madrigal is also working on research for CLS regarding how constitutional rights — specifically Second Amendment gun ownership in Pennsylvania — can be impacted by one’s criminal record, and further, how the abridgment of that right might impact one’s employment opportunities. It is a non-partisan research project focused on providing CLS clients with greater access to information.
Extending a Network
Madrigal expressed that being able to meaningfully connect local Philadelphians with resources they need to thrive economically is not only incredibly rewarding, but also a privilege. Legal interns are workers, too — and the Peggy Browning Fund’s support of this work is perhaps the most indicative proof of its dedication to supporting fair and equitable labor across industries.
“It’s amazing to have this opportunity with an agency that is already linked to all of these different labor and employment organizations,” Madrigal said. “Also, I’m in law school, and I have a family. I’m so happy that, with Peggy Browning’s network and support, I was able to connect with an organization right here in Philly that does amazing work. It really is incredible.”
Like Madrigal, Lutz and Sindberg also expressed gratitude for the support that enabled them to secure meaningful work organizing for labor rights this summer. Moreover, demonstrating their personal commitments to continue building upon the Fund’s already strong and highly impactful network of dedicated stewards, they have all also extended their willingness to speak with anyone interested in learning more about the Peggy Browning Fellowship and labor organization work more broadly.