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It is an honor to be a part of this symposium, but I have to admit that I am a little embarrassed by its title. I have certainly never thought of myself as a “public intellectual.” And to whatever limited extent I may fit the definition the organizers had in mind, so do many others of much greater distinction. Even in my own little corner of labor and employment law—union democracy law—I share the public intellectual podium, figuratively at least, with Alan Hyde of Rutgers Law School, and with my law school classmate, Chicago labor lawyer and writer, Tom Geoghegan, among others.
Nevertheless, I appreciate the opportunity to write about the cause to which I have devoted a good part of my career both inside and outside the halls of academia: the struggle to make the labor movement more democratic and more responsive to its members. After a brief explanation of how I became involved in the union democracy movement, this article will highlight some of the reasons why I believe union democracy is such an important cause. It will then explain why the role of public intellectuals is particularly important for the cause of union democracy, and will conclude with a description of some of the ways my work in the area of union democracy has enhanced my teaching and scholarship. . . .
I want to thank the Section on Labor Relations and Employment Law, specifically David Yamada and the other organizers of this panel, for choosing the theme that brings us here today. The idea that people who teach and write about the employment relationship might have something special to offer as public intellectuals is both a compliment and a challenge.
The particular project I will discuss is my work on a film called Morristown: In the Air and Sun, released in 2007 after the labor of almost a decade. During that time, I worked closely with Anne Lewis, the independent filmmaker who created the documentary. Now, she and I are up to our elbows in the distribution phase of the effort. I will share below several stories about how the project came to be and what lessons one might take from it as to possible productive roles for public intellectuals. Before beginning that discussion, however, I want to set out some things about the larger perspective I bring to this work, a move that I hope will better equip readers both to question and to understand what follows.
I take myself to be a partisan in what I view as a momentous battle going on in our country and in the world over how we are going to order our economic and political affairs, whose interests will be taken into account, where our resources ought to flow, what values and priorities ought to guide our steps, and who will participate in making important decisions about the rules of the game. I do not see this as a simple battle driven by a single set of issues, nor one in which all the good is on one side and all the evil on another. . . .
Over the course of my career, I have received a lot of good advice that I want to share with my colleagues in the labor and employment law academy. Specifically, I want to share my thoughts about how to disseminate our research outside the legal academy by testifying before Congress, state legislatures, and government agencies; writing op-eds and magazine articles; and speaking to the general public.
At the outset, I want to offer some general advice. Some is based on things that I was told early in my academic career, and some I have learned on my own.
Perhaps the best advice that I ever received was to “make your research count at least three times.” For me, this has often meant using my research in various capacities: for law review and bar journal articles, for the classroom, for chapters in practitioner-type treatises, for continuing legal education programs, in testimony and submissions to government agencies, for op-eds, and for speeches to community groups like local chapters of the AARP and Kiwanis clubs. . . .
This stimulating collection of essays builds upon the 2008 Annual Meeting program of the Section on Labor Relations and Employment Law of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the major professional association for legal educators. The Section devoted its January 2008 program to the topic of “The Employment and Labor Law Professor as Public Intellectual: Sharing Our Work with the World,” which featured presentations by four accomplished law professors who were selected via a Call for Papers issued the previous year. The purpose of the program and the resulting essays is to explore how law professors, particularly those who teach in the field of employment and labor law, can apply their research and scholarship to the important tasks of public education and intellectual activism. . . .
The topic of this symposium issue sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) is the role of the labor and employment law professor as a public intellectual. Despite the baggage accompanying the phrase “public intellectual,” the symposium topic is an important one, for the term carries more meaning than a mere “talking head” or “media figure” can express. To make theoretical ideas more accessible to others, to connect theory and practice, to explain academic or scholarly ideas in a way that the public can understand—these ideas resonate with my philosophy of the law professor’s role. In fact, this is the essence of what we strive for as labor and employment law professors, and, to that end, this piece concludes with some advice for others who, like me, are relative newcomers to the academy.
This article concentrates on what I believe can be a fruitful collaboration between labor and employment law professors and groups (worker centers) that provide educational, financial, and technical legal assistance to workers. While I have written some op-ed pieces about worker rights and have written for several law professor web logs about employment law topics, these activities are more about educating the public than any sort of yearning for public recognition. This discussion begins with several key assumptions, none of which are particularly radical. The first assumption is that most employment law professors ground their discussion of the law in the experiences of workers and management. The second assumption is that most—if not all—law professors have a desire to reform labor and employment laws in ways that promote the well-being of workers while at the same time allowing businesses and entrepreneurs to maintain a competitive advantage. . . .