Today’s Fight for the Rights of Union Workers with Deborah Willig
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Deborah Willig, the managing partner of Willig, Williams & Davidson who talks about today’s fight for the rights of union workers. Deb knows that unions and workers today are in the fight of their lives, battling to retain jobs, increase wages, protect benefits, and strengthen the right to organize. A lifelong champion of workers, Deb had represented unions for more than four decades. She has negotiated on behalf of museum workers, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, teachers, firefighters, teamsters, hospitality workers and so many more. Deb has shattered the glass ceiling for women and gay lawyers repeatedly. She was the first woman chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and has been recognized for her work and advocacy with many lifetime achievement awards. A full biography of Deb’s accomplishments can be found at https://www.wwdlaw.com/attorney/deborah-r-willig/.
Would you tell our listeners what it means to be an advocate on behalf of US workers?
It looks like helping employees in the workplace organize so that they are able to fight for their rights in a collective fashion. After they get unionized, it involves negotiating collective bargaining agreements that really govern how an employee is treated in his or her or their workplace, from health and welfare to pension, to wages, to safety issues, to fighting through a grievance procedure. All of that is governed by a collective bargaining agreement.
Is there a particular group of people that you’ve recently helped to organize?
Yes, our firm has been involved in the last couple of years in various historic situations. Most recently, our firm represented AFSCME District Council 47 and its local in organizing the workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Who are the workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art? What kind of roles do they play?
That’s a great question. In this museum, we have what labor lawyers call a wall-to-wall unit. You have visitor services assistants, who are the people that take tickets and direct people around the museum. You have people who work in retail in the coffee shops and the bookstores, all the way up to people who design, plan, hang, and negotiate for loans for every exhibit in the museum. An example is the blockbuster Matisse mixed exhibit.
Were the museum workers on strike?
Yes, a very long strike. One of the longest in recent Philadelphia history, 19 days. Before that, it took almost two years to get to the point of the strike. The leadership of the museum fought the union organization to begin with. We went through an elongated set of hearings over two years ago. We initially started bargaining 22 months ago, and we got to a point where the workers said, “Enough is enough. You have not responded to our demands, and we have no other choice but to withhold our services.”
What was the biggest sticking point or the sticking points?
Probably the biggest were compensation in healthcare. Notwithstanding the fact that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the top museums in the United States and in the world. It has a $600 million endowment and a $66 million-a-year budget. The vast majority of the people in this bargaining unit were substantially underpaid compared to the peer museums across the United States. We have that from objective data because the American Association of Museum Directors conducts a salary survey every two years. We looked at the mean of 70 job titles. For instance, the mean for an assistant curator is $69,000 or $70,000, and at the Philadelphia Museum, they’re being paid $55,000.
Gina Rubel: That’s the city with the highest level of poverty in the nation.
Deborah Willig: To put it more locally, the Barnes Foundation, a museum that is not a five-minute walk from the PMA, posted the position of assistant curator for a salary of $70,000. Contracts with other museum unions paid hourly employees anywhere from $18.15 an hour to $25 an hour. Our folks were making $13.25 until the museum finally agreed that it had to comply with the living wage law in the city of Philadelphia. We negotiated an immediate increase up to $16.75. The other issue, sadly, is that not only are they underpaid, but their health insurance is not what it should be. The museum has basically four plans, two of which apply to the organized workers, and one of them isn’t HMO, which people are familiar with. It’s a very vanilla HMO. It’s not rich in benefits, but the museum was charging 36% of its premium to the employees. For someone making $40,000, $45,000, or $15 an hour, they can’t afford it. The other alternative in which 97% of the employees are enrolled as a high deductible plan. And study upon study has shown that for people making less than $75,000 a year, high deductible plans result in a lack of access to healthcare. We got improvements there, and they’ll pay less for their healthcare. Frankly, they shouldn’t even have a high deductible plan for this group of employees.
Gina Rubel: None of this is just the way people feel. This is all based in data and statistics. Not being paid the minimum wage is definitely an issue. I appreciate you and what you do.
What was your inspiration for dedicating your life to union-side labor law?
My earliest inspiration was my paternal grandfather. My grandfather was the head of one of the biggest locals of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in the early 1900s in Philadelphia. I remember sitting around Sunday dinner tables hearing him talk about access to healthcare because the Sydney Hillman Medical Center, which used to sit at 22nd and Chestnut Street, provided healthcare for the active and retired members of that union. When I got old enough to drive, I would drive my grandparents to get their healthcare. That was my earliest inspiration. Also, my mother was a member of AFSCME. She worked for the state of Pennsylvania, and my sister was a long-time, almost 39-year member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. She taught music in the Philadelphia school district. I lived through my sister in the 1970s and early 1980s strikes for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. They became our client in 1983.
Gina Rubel: That says a lot right there since it’s going to be 2023 very soon.
You’ve recently helped with the first-ever collective bargaining agreement for the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association. Can you tell us more about that and what it means to women’s professional sports in the United States?
It was both an arduous and extremely exciting representation at the beginning. There’s a difference between the people who play for the National Women’s Soccer League and the people who play for the Women’s National Team. Virtually all of the people on the National Team will play for the League, but the Women’s National Team is the crème de la crème. There are two different unions and two different collective bargaining agreements. The members of the Women’s National Team have had a collective bargaining agreement for a few years. The people who play on the 12 different teams in the league organized in 2017. They were voluntarily recognized.
It took a lot of time and effort to formulate demands. We started bargaining in March of 2021 and finished on January 31st of 2022. It was a significant agreement – not only terms and conditions, but wages. We raised the starting salary of the players on these teams from $22,000 to $35,000. It was a huge increase. We also negotiated increases for the veterans of the League – people who had played 6, 8, 10 years in the League. The League is only celebrating its 10th anniversary right now.
We also negotiated free agency for the veterans, so they could finish their careers in a city and a team where they choose and not at the owner’s whims. Before there was a collective bargaining agreement, some of the owners would give 24 hours’ notice and say, “You’re traded to Chicago or you’re traded to North Carolina, or you’re traded to Houston.” These women would have to pack up their entire lives and move to another team.
Gina Rubel: Wow. It’s like going back to the days of women being channeled, but we’re not far away from there right now. I’m being a little political there, but I think it’s important to talk about the state of affairs in law as it relates to women.
If you could give any women voters advice on what we can be doing to make this world a better place for women and other communities, what would you say?
I was going to say I’m partisan, but what’s really more accurate is that I firmly believe in democracy. I’m 72 years old, and it pains me horribly to think that our child is going to grow up in a world where there is no access to abortion. That will be true if Republicans take control of the House or the Senate. That will be true if the Republican in Pennsylvania becomes governor. We are not the only state in which that is true. Two pieces of advice – vote and vote Democratic.
Gina Rubel: I’m with you on that. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. I also believe in a woman’s right to take care of her body and in one’s choice to have an abortion. I called Deb Willig the day of the Dobbs decision, and I was hysterical. I really didn’t realize how I was going to react because I tend to be very levelheaded and neutral. I was just beside myself. We have a lot to do for women. Deb, you’ve really shattered glass ceilings. I still remember when you became the first woman chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which is an organization here in the Philadelphia region where lawyers have been members for over 125 years. My grandfather was a member, my father was a member. You knew him. I have been an active member over the years, so I’ve grown up in it. You were one of the people who I saw, someone who looked like me, and I knew that I could pursue a career in law.
What do we need to do to continue the fight for law firms to become more diverse?
In between college and law school, I worked for the Governor’s Commission on the status of women. The executive director used to have a saying in the early ’70s – “You can’t find qualified women if you’re only looking in the men’s room.” I have to say that much of it is economic. I remember when some law-related organizations met at the Union League, until some women, including Lisa Richette, for whom I had the privilege of clerking, said, “I’m not going there. I can’t enter the front door.” You used to have to go through the back door of the basement if you were a female. Ultimately, all those private clubs allowed women in because they needed the dues money. It’s not different in a law firm. When women started graduating from law school at a rate of 50% of the graduating classes, law firms had to be looking at women.
The problem is not discrimination in the hiring of women in any of the law firms. It’s really the promotion to partnership. That is linked to rainmaking. Very few women in big firms who are fabulous lawyers make it into the equity partner role because law firms are looking at the bottom line. That’s endemic discrimination because women are still the primary caregivers. Women would like to work part-time while they’re raising their kids. Women may not be out on the golf course or going to a football game. Those are all traditional ways in which people got business. I don’t think that has changed dramatically. There are some women leaders of law firms now. The most notable is Jami Wintz McKeon at Morgan Lewis, whose term was just extended, who is an extraordinary lawyer.
I don’t know if Jami got business, but I bet everything I own the answer is yes. I don’t know whether she had good mentors, people who introduced her, who turned clients over to her, and therefore it was in her book of business. There are issues there. I think we’ve been successful in recruiting and retaining women for a couple of reasons. Number one – before the Bar Association ever promulgated part-time employment policies, we had part-time women. I would say 90% of the women who have ever worked for or continue to work for our firm, work on a part-time basis. We were willing to consider them for partnership even though they were part-time because if they’re good enough to work, I wouldn’t want to lose them because they’re in their childbearing or child-rearing years. Also, I think one thing we recognized was that a great lawyer is as big an asset to a firm as a rainmaker, sometimes more so. Until that dynamic changes, I don’t know if we’ll see gender equality in law firms.
Gina Rubel: I just spent this entire week down in Washington DC at the American Lawyer Media Women’s Conference, and it’s called WIPL – Women, Influence & Power in Law. There are a lot of women, and some of the data coming out is that women still only make up 22% of partners in US law firms. We haven’t gotten anywhere yet, and we have a long way to go. It’s different than it was when you and I started, but we still have a long way to go.
When my grandfather became a federal magistrate for the first US district here in Philadelphia, they had a party for him at the Union League, which I’ve been a member of for years. I was married there, and I am a fan of the league today. But my grandmother refused to go in. She wasn’t allowed to go in at the time. This was I think 1970 or 1969, around the year I was born. She said, “I’ll be darned,” in a different language, in Italian. She went into the Union League and said, “If my husband is good enough to be here, I am good enough to be here.” They did not throw her out.
Deborah Willig: I won’t mention the name, but there is a woman who ended up in the judiciary who you and I both know, whose father was a member of the Vesper Club. The Vesper Club would not admit women in the ’70s. She applied with two first initials and the last name. They admitted her because they didn’t realize that she was a “she,” and they didn’t know what to do after that. But they started letting women in.
Gina Rubel: It is important that we as women lawyers continue to fight the good fight. I do want to say I’m very blessed to work with you as a managing partner of a significant law firm. We have two other clients that have female managing partners, and this is vastly different than earlier in my career. We also work with Bressler, Amery & Ross that has Diana Manning and Shipman & Goodwin with Leander Dolphin. It’s so nice to see women leading the charge, but they’ve had to work hard and oftentimes harder than our counterparts.
After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you shared a personal experience with me. Would you tell our listeners about that?
I was privileged to meet Justice Ginsburg when she was a law professor and an attorney in the early or mid ’70s. The law schools around the country hosted women in the law conferences. We got Temple University, my alma mater, to be a host, and Justice Ginsburg spoke there. I remember the speech very well because we were talking about veterans’ benefits and how they discriminated against women. She was not only intellectually brilliant, but she was also completely oriented. She was very clear to the women in the audience – we have to fight it, but we don’t need to take the case right now because we’d never win with the demographics of the Supreme Court at the time. It was fascinating to hear somebody saying we have a right, but don’t pursue it right now.
When Justice Ginsburg was appointed, I was determined to attend her swearing-in. A client of ours had become the deputy director of the Democratic National Committee nationwide. I made a call and said, “I’ve never asked for anything in my life, but I would like to attend the swearing-in the White House.” He got me a ticket. It was my first entry into the really significant rooms in the White House. When you see a presidential press conference, you see it in the green room. We were there. I have pictures of it. It was an extraordinary moment.
Gina Rubel: God rest her soul. She was an extraordinary woman. As are you.
Much of your professional experience has been negotiating significant collective bargaining agreements. There’s one in particular, domestic partnership arbitration, can you tell us about that?
I think it’s about 25 years ago at this point. We represented all of the reporters at the Inquirer in the Daily News. They’re part of the newspaper guild. We were also counsel to their health and welfare fund, which was a jointly administered fund, meaning there was an equal number of union trustees and management trustees. They set the benefits. It was at the very beginning of workers asking for domestic partnership benefits. Our clients who had a number of people who would’ve been affected by this asked to include that in the benefits package. The management trustees said no. One of the issues that any trustee on a health and welfare fund has to look at is what’s the cost of the benefit? We had benefit consultants who were at the forefront of analyzing these benefits for Xerox, IBM, universities, and major Fortune 500 corporations.
The information that they were seeing led to a conclusion that it cost less than one half of 1% to add a domestic partnership benefit. It wasn’t the money. The fund was fully funded at the time. One of the trustees on the other side was a guy who had worked his way up literally from a mail room person to the head of HR at Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. He said, “I just don’t believe in it.” I think he was a conservative religious person, and that didn’t comport with his personal beliefs. We filed a grievance, we took it to arbitration, and we won. This was back in the mid to late nineties. It was groundbreaking. I still get a note about every year from the now-retired reporter at the Inquirer thanking us for getting her domestic partner benefits.
If you could change one thing related to workers’ rights across the nation, what would it be?
The fundamental right to organize. Over the years during various Republican presidencies and certainly during Trump, laws were passed, and regulations were enacted by the National Labor Relations Board. Trump, Bush, and Reagan appointees made it exceedingly difficult for people to organize into a union. That is slowly changing. There were high hopes in 2008 that at the beginning of the Obama administration, they would pass more worker-friendly laws that never happened. The PRO Act, which Biden campaigned on, would make it easier for unions to get into a workplace and talk to people about the positive effects of collective bargaining. That’s languishing. If we were to keep a Democratic house and get a bigger majority in the Senate, I think that would be passed, and that would be a significant change.
What in your career are you most proud of?
There are a couple of things. I’m certainly proud of being the first woman chancellor. I changed the face of the Bar Association, and the members of the Association never looked back. We’re on our 8th or 10th woman chancellor. It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since I served. I’m also immensely proud of the firm that we have created. We are a women-owned firm, and a family-friendly firm. We work as a team. When we finish the collective bargaining agreement for the art museum, I thanked at least 10 lawyers in the office who have played different roles at different points in time. It shows that it can be done, that women can be treated equally, that women can lead, and that women can work in a firm where you can balance work and life.
Gina Rubel: I know that to be true, having been to some of your holiday parties and watched everyone from the mail room professionals to the support professionals to the attorneys dancing together and laughing together. It’s quite a feat to create that environment. I agree that you changed the face of the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Bar Association as well, because they had to follow suit.
Do you have any parting advice for others who may wish to advocate on behalf of unions and their members?
I have always felt as a union-side labor lawyer that I work on the side of the angels. We work to make the lives of the people we represent better. I think it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. And I would just say to anybody interested, keep the fight going. You’ll never regret it.
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Deborah R. Willig
Learn more about Deborah R. Willig
Willig, Williams & Davidson is one of the largest and most respected union-side labor law firms in the United States. Founded in 1979, our accomplished and diverse legal team focuses on representing labor unions, employee benefit funds, individual working people and their families. For over 40 years, our mission has remained the same – to level the playing field by helping unions and working families navigate a complex and sometimes intimidating legal system.
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