A Conversation with Detroit's Sugar Law Center
Interview by Jeanne Dasaro and Ellen Lempereur
In March 2010, NPi sat down with John Philo, Tony Paris, and Tova Perlmutter of Sugar Law Center, a national nonprofit, public-interest law center in Detroit, Michigan, to learn more about their work. In partnership with community groups, workers’ rights groups, and concerned citizens, Sugar Law Center provides legal advocacy and technical support to empower individuals and communities seeking systemic change with regard to economic and social justice. Sugar Law has been instrumental in many fair-employment, mass-layoff, and environmental justice cases.
NPi: How did Sugar Law Center begin?
John Philo: We were founded on the legacy of Maurice and Jane Sugar. Maurice Sugar was a very progressive labor attorney who was instrumental in founding the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union’s legal department. As a husband and wife team, the Sugars dedicated their lives to the early labor movement and his ideas helped form the National Lawyers Guild. They were ahead of their time, and we can see their legacy in a city like Detroit where there are more progressive lawyers per capita than there are anywhere else in the country.
When her husband died, Jane and others gave the funds necessary to start the Sugar Law Center, a non-profit law firm that promotes economic and social rights as civil rights, as human rights. Our role is to make sure people’s human rights in the economic and social arenas are fully realized at the ground level.
Most economic rights are tied to the workplace, so we do a lot of workplace-related work. We’ve also done environmental justice work… The courts aren’t friendly to environmental justice claims, but it’s the job of places like us to keep pushing those claims, because they are very much a part of human rights.
Tony Paris: There are always going to be cases that are not cost viable for a for-profit law firm to take on, especially those edgy cases you may not win. These days it’s tough to get a big for-profit law firm to take cases where there’s no guarantee as far as the money or the market is concerned. We’re lucky enough here where we can answer calls without worrying about our hourly rate, where we can field calls from all over the country to provide insight and tools to people looking for help.
We do a lot of direct representation and education around workers’ rights during plant closings and mass layoffs under the WARN Act, a federal law requiring that employees be given 60 days notice prior to being laid off. There are a lot of weaknesses in that law and how it’s interpreted. John recently testified in Congress to pass a reform bill that would strengthen WARN, and I know we join countless people from across the country when we say that we need to see reform now, when it matters most.
John: The WARN Act is an opening for a fuller realization of the idea that people have a right to some measure of social security when they lose their job through economic conditions that are no fault of their own. They have a right to that a human right. Our job is to make that law see its maximum potential and then build on it. Other countries recognize a right to severance pay; it’s common in every western country. We treat it like it’s socialism and it’s just ridiculous. It’s a fundamental human right.
One thing Sugar Law does is litigate under the existing WARN Act. We prepare model briefs or model legislation, issue briefs, educate unions, and advocate at the state level through state legislatures, departments of state and departments of labor because that’s where the greatest opportunity to get passage to strengthen it lies. We’ve had some success. New Hampshire did a great job and passed WARN Act reform legislation. They consulted with us quite extensively during the law’s development and passage. New York passed improved legislation as well, New Jersey’s done it, and New Mexico came so close!
Law is just one tool. Good journalism’s another tool. Teachers are another tool. We look at Sugar Law Center as a tool to support positive social change.
NPi: In the longer continuum of social change, where do you see your work fitting in?
John: Our work will constantly evolve as struggles change. One major area that will not change is helping workers organize to protect their own rights on the job, their basic human rights. One thing that will change is how workers organize and how we support that. There’s a great struggle going on in the labor movement now. We work with a lot of labor unions that are struggling to find out how they can remain relevant and have a greater role in the future. What’s labor going to look like in 20 years?
Even the more traditional labor unions are trying to organize workers differently than they have in the past. They’re trying to provide a service through us to folks who are not part of a union in order to help them protect the limited rights they have. This is until there’s an opportunity to build broader cohesion and form a more traditional union.
We also work with groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which has an entirely different model than the union. They organize the workers as organizational members, but not a traditional collective bargaining approach. We try to help them make informed decisions about legal actions they can take and possible repercussions. We try to give them avenues within the law. For example, restaurants are dependent upon their liquor and food licenses. How can you use the criteria for obtaining a liquor and/or food license to protect workers’ rights?
In addition, wage violations, gender, race, ethnicity, discrimination is pretty rampant in the industry. How do you use those laws to make concrete change in the employers’ practices?
Tony: I’m pretty new in the legal field… You’re told in law school that you’ll be able to have this lightning bolt of power to go and fix things, and it’s not true. Working at Sugar Law is great because we integrate legal tools with other non-traditional means that organizations need to make change. Advising on how to protest legally outside of a restaurant? That type of stuff isn’t taught in law school.
It’s a privilege for a law student or young lawyer to be able to think outside the box and not just work within, “Well the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) says this, and you’re pretty much out of luck because the changes are only going to happen through re-litigating the same exact things over and over again.”
NPi: Would you say that Sugar Law Center serves as a liaison between the people and the policymakers, or do you consult with different organizations?
John: It all depends on the circumstances and what is most needed. Protest work can range from advising the group in advance on what they can do, to informing the City Attorney about what the group is allowed to do, to being a liaison between the police and certain groups, particularly in the case of protests with undocumented workers.
In other situations, we will use administrative or legal procedures to help bring public visibility to a community campaign. What is extremely important and our expertise is an ability to think dynamically about cases. There’s a tendency in law to say, “I’m a labor lawyer, I just go to the NLRB,” or “I’m a wage and hour lawyer,” or “I’m a civil rights lawyer.” The conditions that people face do not fit into those categories… We’re human rights lawyers. We’re people’s lawyers.”
Tony: And when we can’t believe that the law doesn’t cover a case brought to our attention, it’s about getting the story out there.
NPi: Can you give an example?
Tony: Sure. One 72 year-old woman I spoke to recently is a door greeter at Wal-Mart. Hell might as well freeze over if she leaves her post to go the bathroom, so her supervisor got somebody to replace her one or two times a shift. But then a new supervisor came on and told her that she didn’t see anything in the handbook about the replacement, and that the elderly woman would be forced to hold it. The woman gets this horrible bladder infection and needs to miss five days of work. She calls in, she gives them a doctor’s note, and they don’t credit her Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in time.
A Family Medical Leave Act states that if you’re leaving work to care for somebody, either in your family or yourself with severe illness, it can be credited toward 90 days that you get per year. But she hadn’t been there long enough to quality for FMLA. Not only that, but when she returned they told her that they had to write her up for all these absences. She gets frustrated and quit, which [created new problems]. We can tell her to file with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration office), and that it’s been considered a health and safety thing before, but as far as a tangible sue-able, legal issue, it’s hard.
In Michigan, we have no state break requirements, and it just blows my mind. Other companies, including other Wal-Marts, require breaks to make sure you don’t get overtime.
John: On the other hand, if the supervisor asks you to work through it, you don’t have a right to say, “That’s part of my contract.” You can do that… but you could be fired for it.
Tony: We see it a lot with severance issues under the WARN Act where the handbook says one thing, but when you try to enforce it, the company cites line 2 that says that the handbook is not a contract. Yet in other unemployment insurance hearings, people will not receive unemployment because they willfully violated company’s policies listed in the handbook, which of course is then treated as a contract.
A company gets 17 to 30 years of loyalty from an individual who works there every day, and they can’t give 60 days of loyalty to let them know they’re going to need to pack up.
NPi: You both seem pretty passionate about what you’re talking about. What drives you to do this work?
John: We love this work. It’s why we went to law school. I firmly believe that we’re on the right side of an issue, regardless of whether we “win.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the opposing attorney come up to me after a case and say, “You know, I really like what you guys do, and I wish I had been able to do that.” They’re decent people. It’s important to remember that other attorneys didn’t turn away our clients because they’re heartless people, but because their hands are tied working for a certain department or agency or company.
Clients come in all shapes and sizes. All of them are entitled to their rights and entitled to be treated with some dignity. Our clients at Sugar Law often have nowhere else to turn.
Tony: People always ask, What would you do if you had all the money you needed? Honestly, it’s this. What motivates me to get out of bed every morning is getting that call from someone who needs help translating their story into a legal language. I can help them. It’s such a great thing not having somebody look over my shoulder when I spend a little extra time talking with somebody on the phone. Even when they don’t have a great case, I can validate their experience and let them know that there are people fighting the same fight. I can’t put a dollar amount on the freedom and pride I have in the work I do here.
John: That’s the truth. Attorneys like us actually believed it when they told us that the Constitution means something, that human rights means something, that the idea of justice means something. These are not just words on a paper. I went to law school to have the chance to help give those words real meaning and to help people realize some measure of justice, however small. We get to do that here.
Tony: They tell you in law school that you’re supposed to be able to argue both sides equally well. Theoretically I could try, but I would never be as good arguing for something I didn’t believe in. Frankly, I think it’s a lot of sh** to think that you can do that.
John: I have to agree. You have to be able to see the other side, but be able to argue it? Be able to believe in it? I think that level of detachment requires a certain lack of humanity that makes the law worse.
The other thing is that law school tries to teach you that law is static, but society naturally evolves, as do our principles. Law is not static; it reflects the state of a society. If you believe it’s not static, then there’s always a chance to move toward a better society.
Tony: Before I came here, I was about to drop out of law school! [Laughter] Meeting National Lawyers Guild attorneys like John saved me. I wanted that community of like-minded people striving for change. Now I get to tell the interns who come in that if you want to help people and think that you have to have a lobotomy to go into law school or something, you don’t! I was sitting where you are just two or three years ago. There is a community of lawyers trying to help, who do make real change.
You can get great grades and write great briefs, but there is a face on the other side of that brief you’re writing; there is a 72 year old woman who works at Wal-Mart, for example. You need to realize the ground floor human aspect of what you’re doing.
NPi: There’s always a small community of support somewhere… What is something that you’ve learned through this work that you would pass on to others?
John: Don’t marginalize folks who don’t fit your image of a progressive person. We have the opportunity here to work with people in rural communities. These people get cut out; they’re not considered part of progressive America. But someone who has lived through the destruction of their town with the grand opening of a Wal-Mart or who has seen how the big companies that replaced all the small businesses [mis]treat their workers knows injustice.
We can talk about inner city Detroit, too. Nobody gives a damn about those people, and they’re totally misrepresented in our local political world. But these people have experienced the new economy in ways that most of the country refuses to acknowledge. That person in rural Arkansas or in inner-city Detroit have far more in common than we sometimes realize. They know far more about justice and the realities of our future economy than most of us with graduate degrees.
Tony: I’d say it’s possible to work within the system without compromising your values. Where in most cases the left and the nonprofit sectors in Detroit feel an inherent distrust toward big lawyers, politicians, and legislators, writing people off is not the answer. We seek dialogue across all sides and sectors to get things done.
John: Also, take people where they are and don’t impose your judgments on where they should be. Most people are decent. I’m entitled to my opinion, but I’m not entitled to beat other folks up with it.
This society funnels people into [corporate work]. It shouldn’t surprise us that a majority of people end up there, but that doesn’t mean that they would have made the same choices if they had a meaningful alternative.
NPi: Where could you as an organization use help?
Tova Perlmutter: We really want to be useful support for the labor movement. Part of what we could use is connections with union activists and union leaders who are interested in alternative forms of organizing and alternative forms of service delivery and workers’ empowerment. We want to connect with attorneys who focus on employment law in terms of individual employees. We want them to know that there are ways they can partner with us and provide some pro bono assistance to mistreated employees without breaking the bank.
In most locations around the country, low-wage workers cannot get help from Legal Aid on employment issues. Even though it is underfunded and perennially overloaded, Legal Aid is a source through which many low-income people do get access to justice. We can’t do everything that Legal Aid should be doing all over the country, but we can pull together folks who have a commitment to workers’ rights. Individuals need access to justice and abusive employers need to know that there’s some teeth behind employment laws.
How to Get Involved:
Internships: The Sugar Law Center provides legal internships for law students throughout the year. We strive to offer a highly educational and rewarding experience. We accept resumes year-round generally have between 2 and 6 interns at any given time. See our Interns page for comments on their experience by prior interns.
Cooperating Attorneys: We are involved in direct litigation on behalf of dislocated workers, other working people and community groups throughout the country. We work with cooperating counsel on many cases, and refer clients to attorneys when we are unable to take their cases ourselves.
Volunteers: We can use volunteers for a variety of projects, ranging from a few hours to an ongoing commitment; from envelope stuffing to expert consultation on technology, public relations and other aspects of our operations. Of course, we are always in need of volunteer attorney time.
In-kind Donations: We are especially in need of work station computers and monitors. We can also use a shredder and other equipment and supplies.
Payroll Deductions: The Sugar Law Center participates in the Michigan State Employees Combined Campaign through Community Shares of Michigan.
For more information on any of these opportunities, please call the Law Center at (313) 993-4505.