Corinna Spencer-Scheurich: NWJP in Transition

On July 1st , I assumed the Director role at NWJP, after nearly 8 years of taking a turn at almost every other role at the organization. I am aware that I have big shoes to fill, those of founding Director Michael Dale. Michael conceived of and willed NWJP into being, with help from all of you, and through the force of his vision, skills, knowledge, and commitment.

I won’t pretend I have it all figured out in four months, and certainly not now when political and societal chaos challenges our understanding of the moment. But, at the same time, in some ways, NWJP’s organizational purpose has been made crystal clear by the successive crises, calling us to rise to the moment to seize opportunities in new and creative ways.

To start, the pandemic has stripped away most pretenses anyone had about the dangerous and unjust nature of low-wage and contingent work. Opportunities for progress are newly possible. For example, two years ago, we called together the Safe Jobs Oregon coalition to improve workplace health and safety enforcement for low-wage and immigrant workers. This work has not been easy. But now, the world has indelibly learned how America’s frontline workers, mostly low-wage workers and immigrants, have been unnecessarily exposed to disease and death, and have had to fight for basic protective equipment. Conversations are shifting in the direction of worker safety. Recently, we focused our efforts on pushing Oregon OSHA for a strong infectious disease standard and protections for migrant agricultural workers, and have made headway.

As another example, for NWJP’s entire history, we have litigated on behalf of employees misclassified as independent contractors, who we argued were not getting the benefit of basic employment protections. Few employers or policymakers felt inclined to address that status quo. Then, in one fell swoop, millions of independent contractors were given “pandemic unemployment assistance” by the federal government, thereby acknowledging that these workers also needed a safety net during COVID. Going forward, we should no longer have to make the case that misclassification profoundly hurts workers and the economy. Instead, our advocacy can focus more on solutions.

In addition, the central nature of racial justice in NWJP’s economic justice work has come into even sharper focus thanks to the heroic endurance of Black Lives Matter protestors in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. We have always understood that racial justice is economic justice and that economic justice is racial justice. We directly address and strategize with our immigrant clients and their families about how to try to prevent the racial profiling that leads to immigration enforcement agencies being alerted to an unlawful presence. As we have watched explicit white nationalism blossom in some workplaces, we have used our expertise to help our clients beat it back.

But, this moment requires us to do more. We join the chorus of protesters when, for example, Black unemployment rises while white unemployment begins to fall. We push for changes when workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 in food processing and agriculture hit Latinx communities the hardest of any community in Oregon. We aim to be agents of anti-racist policy change in every space we are in. We are taking fresh looks at potential cases to question at what point the drip, drip, drip of racist language and conduct become enough to hold the employer responsible. Some legislators, judges and jurors have been changed by this antiracist moment, and, therefore, we must help workers and our allies push forward where there are opportunities for meaningful change.

Finally, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the hypocritical rush to fill her seat on the Court has exposed the challenges we face in helping our clients meaningfully access justice in a system so easily manipulated by partisan politics and bias. We have long known that our legal system is marred by bias. We have trained ourselves and others on how best to pick a jury for a case on behalf of an immigrant or person of color. We have trained ourselves and others how to push to expand the remedies available for undocumented immigrants and to keep immigration status out of discovery and out of the court room when possible. But, now the federal courts, our preferred avenue for justice for our clients, face danger from ideological judicial appointees at all levels. We will see how the next decade of federal court decisions fall for our client communities, but we are already shifting our focus to litigating in state courts and to advocating for protections from state and local policy makers.

In spite of the severe challenges we face, the path forward also gives hope that the current suffering will birth new progress in building just and equitable workplaces. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” “trickle down,” and “color blind” have been exposed, hopefully once and for all, as hollow promises. Together, we can get down to making anti-racist changes in our workplaces, communities, states and country that 1) will allow low-wage, contingent and immigrant workers to build power in their workplaces for long-lasting and systematic change; 2) will develop a just system of protections and remedies for all workers; and 3) will expand enforcement of laws that results in meaningful remedies for workplace injustices. It will take work, but we at NWJP are up for that challenge.

One of my personal heroes is the political humorist and writer, Molly Ivins. Growing up in Texas and coming into political awareness during the Bush Administration, Molly gave voice to outrage and frustration, while poking fun at the stupidity of politics and the characters in charge. In her last column in 2007, written weeks before her death, Ivins urged readers to act against President Bush’s plans to send more troops to Iraq. Her words resonate to me now, replacing “war in Iraq” with “war against people of color/working people/immigrants.” She wrote, “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell.”

At NWJP, we promise we will.