Workers, Law, and Organizing Clinic

Spirited low-wage worker organizing across communities in Southern California and under-enforced state employment law create opportunities for lawyers working in alliance with organizers. Students in the Workers, Law, and Organizing Clinic, led by Prof. Sameer Ashar, will serve as first chair attorneys on all projects on the Clinic docket and will work in teams on at least one active litigation case and one policy advocacy or cooperative development project. 

As union density in the United States has been eviscerated and the workforce has shifted away from manufacturing, employers have used their economic and political power to subject workers to wage theft, unpaid overtime, unstable schedules, harassment, discrimination, misclassification, and criminalization and raised obstacles to organizing. In California, workers are susceptible to unlawful treatment, particularly low-wage immigrant, women, and Black workers. Labor exploitation is facilitated and structured by racism, misogyny, ableism, and other forms of subordination. The immigration and criminal legal systems deepen the vulnerability of low-wage workers.

Worker centers have risen in Southern California the last two decades in the gaps left by de-unionization. They have propelled creative campaigns to build worker power and fill representational gaps. Orange County is home to several important nascent organizing efforts. Students in the Workers, Law, and Organizing Clinic (WLO), launching as a self-standing core clinic in Fall 2021, will support worker organizing efforts across the region.

Students will develop transferable skills, strategies, and knowledge bases including: interviewing and counseling; case theory development; fact development and investigation; trial advocacy; legal and social science research and analysis; relationship-building with individual and organizational clients; community education and media advocacy; and legislative drafting, administrative rulemaking, and organizational toolkit development. 

Potential WLO Clinic projects include:

  • Minimum wage, overtime, wrongful termination/retaliation, meal and rest break, and misclassification cases before the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and/or state and federal courts;
  • Unfair labor practices charges against employer coercion and retaliation before the National Labor Relations Board;
  • Administrative advocacy and policy advocacy in support of worker power before local and national legislative bodies and agencies;
  • Defense of workers against employer retaliation through the immigration and criminal legal systems;
  • Cooperative enterprise formation with teams of worker-owners; and
  • Documentation and report writing in collaboration with worker organizations.

Recent Work

Amongst other projects, Workers, Law, and Organizing Clinic (WLO) students have been supporting individuals detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California, operated by GEO Group, Inc. In June 2022, a courageous group inside the facility initiated a labor strike. They were doing janitorial work for $1 per day. After one of the leaders of the strike sat down with ICE and GEO officials to discuss the demands of the group — minimum wage, unspoiled food, clean water, uniforms that weren’t threadbare — he was placed in solitary confinement. The California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ), which seeks to disrupt and dismantle the immigration detention industry in California, had previously successfully led the fight to close a publicly-owned facility in Yolo County and offered immigration counsel to a large number of detainees at Mesa Verde. WLO students set out with CCIJ to convince the National Labor Relations Board to find that the Mesa Verde workers are employees under federal labor law and began filing unfair labor practice charges against GEO.

While the outcome of our legal efforts is unknown at this time, we see at least three lessons that we can draw from this work. First, this is an example of how carceral systems obliterate the floor of employment and labor law on which workers stand. GEO expropriates the labor of those who it is paid to confine, adds surplus workers into the local labor market, and casts a shadow over workplaces outside of detention. Second, workers under great threat still have the capacity to stand up to their employers, with support from lawyers and organizers. We remain in awe of the workers’ mastery of the internal rules and regulations of the facility, the detention standards promulgated by ICE, and the internal grievance processes. And we are inspired by their capacity to strike in the face of the absolute power of their employer over their lives. Third, it is possible to engage in legal advocacy using an abolitionist frame. CCIJ is an exemplary organization that teaches us how to use liberal legalism to force the state to divest in carceral capacity. Again, the outcome of this campaign is unclear, but we have had much to discuss in clinic seminar and rounds.


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