April 11, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – The Peggy Browning Fund honored three key figures from New York’s labor world April 6 for “achievements on behalf of workers”: Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen, Long Island labor lawyer Carol O’Rourke Pennington, and veteran arbitrator Howard Edelman.
Samuelsen, who has headed Local 100 since 2010, was praised for negotiating the 2014 contract that “broke the pattern of zero wage increases for public-sector workers during the recession” and for helping lead “a blue-collar backlash against the banks and brokers” who created that recession. He was unable to attend the ceremony because he was on vacation with his family.
O’Rourke Pennington is a partner in the Garden City firm that represents the New York State AFL-CIO, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the city and Long Island building-trades unions. She said she learned the oral-advocacy skills needed to practice law from arguing with her late father, a firefighter, about discrimination against women in the Fire Department. She added that she was proud to work for unions to “prevent us from losing protections” at a time when labor’s adversaries are the strongest she’s seen in her 30-year career.
Gary LaBarbera, head of the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council, told the gathering that O’Rourke Pennington had been the leader in developing almost $50 billion in project-labor agreements with developers. When the agreements were challenged in federal court, he said, “the reason we prevailed was because of things she anticipated.”
“Without arbitration, the collective-bargaining process would not work,” fund president Joseph Lurie said, explaining why they decided to honor an ostensibly neutral party. Edelman echoed that, saying his work created “labor-relations sanity.” He became an arbitrator in 1982, after going to law school at night and working as a high-school English teacher and New York State United Teachers official. He was largely responsible for resolving the issue of teacher evaluations and appraisals in contract talks between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, fellow arbitrator Martin Scheinman said.
The Philadelphia-based fund provides fellowships for first- and second-year law students to spend their summers working at unions and labor-side law firms. Lurie founded it in 1997 in memory of his late wife, Margaret A. Browning, who was the first union-side lawyer appointed to the National Labor Relations Board. This year, it has 77 fellows, up from 10 in 1998.
“We’re creating the next generation of activist attorneys,” said executive director Mary Anne Moffa. More than half of the former fellows work at unions or law jobs related to workplace justice, the fund says. They include James Conigliaro, head of International Association of Machinists District 15.
“I think even though organized labor is under attack, there’s actually an increase in the number of young people interested in going into the labor movement,” said Nathan Gusdorf, 26, a New York University Law School student who will be working at NYSUT. He said he got “radicalized” as a student at Dartmouth when the college cut campus workers’ health-care benefits.
“Workplace justice—it’s my calling,” said Will Campbell, 22, of New Jersey, a student at Rutgers Law School in Newark. “Both my grandfathers were in unions, and from an early age, I was taught the value of solidarity.” He will be at Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 in Philadelphia.
Lauren McGlothlin, 27, said the fellowship she did at the Service Employees International Union’s Washington headquarters in 2013 gave her the skills and connections she needed to work in labor law. She is now one of four former fellows working at NYSUT. At the SEIU, she wrote a fact sheet on how the Supreme Court’s striking down the Defense of Marriage Act would help same-sex couples get benefits, and learned by watching and absorbing how the union’s lawyers acted during one-day strikes by fast-food and retail workers at D.C.’s Union Station.
“It did everything for me,” she said. “I wouldn’t have understood what unions and labor law were. They don’t teach it in law school.”