Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
A labor lawyer for the last 12 years, law was Chris Williams’ third career. He taught school in Chicago for a decade. For another decade he was a union organizer. Only then did he become a social justice lawyer specializing in advocating for and with low-wage workers. “Even though my route to law school was somewhat circuitous, I think my two prior careers help define who I am as a lawyer,” he says.
Chris grew up in St. Louis. Mom was an elementary school teacher. Dad was Navy pilot who died testing a jet when Chris was two. His dad was a hero because he stayed with his failing plane to avoid a residential area. Mom became the sole parent for 4 kids under 5. Later, mom later married a guy who already had 4 kids and Chris became one of 8.
In college at University of Wisconsin Madison Chris studied history and social justice movements. He was active in justice campaigns including divestment in South Africa and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. He worked through college as an assistant cook in a restaurant. In 1984, he received his undergraduate degree and teaching certificate.
Chris moved to Chicago to be a social studies teacher. He got some job offers in rural communities, but wanted to go to the big city. “I tried to find a job in the Chicago Public Schools but it was hard to find a permanent one as a history teacher.” So he began as a day to day substitute in a system with 16,000 other teachers. As a sub, he bounced around to a lot of different schools.
“I found a second job in the evening in the City Colleges of Chicago teaching in what was called the Adult Learning Skills Program. This was primarily high school courses for people who had dropped out. It provided GED courses, Literacy courses and English as a Second Language. This pre-collegiate program was the largest program in the City College system, with over 1,500 instructors. It was constantly underfunded despite its size and significance, and the 1500 teachers were treated as part-time hourly wage workers, paid $10.00 per hour with no benefits and no pay for prep-time. We were doing the same work as full-time teachers in the Chicago Public Schools but they were calling it part-time and gave no benefits.”
Williams started getting active in the union of evening teachers. After 8 years he dropped the day job, went into full-time night teaching and became much more active in the union, a part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Ultimately he became president of the evening teachers union, AFSCME Local 3506, in Council 31. The 1500 teachers in the union worked for 7 city colleges but classes were held in 350 different community centers.
“As president of the teacher’s union,” said Williams, “I made it my priority to go out and visit each of these 350 community centers, whether on Chicago’s south side, west side or north side, building ties with many different organizations all across the city, relationships that I have maintained to this day. Chicago is racially and ethnically divided but our teachers were working everywhere. We were able to raise wages, get more preparation time, got some benefits and increased community control.
After about a decade of teaching and union activism, AFSCME hired him on full-time to coordinate a state-wide organizing campaign of minimum wage group home workers for the developmentally disabled for Illinois, a campaign that continues to this day.
Williams worked with AFSCME for several years eventually leaving to work for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1997 where he began organizing hospital workers. He later worked with the Screen Actors Guild to help them build solidarity while they were on strike.
“Throughout this time, I maintained my relationship with the community-based centers that housed the pre-collegiate classes,” he noted. “As my knowledge of labor and employment law grew, I became a part of a group that provided ad hoc support the students in the classes in these community centers because, as you might expect, there was a big overlap between students in this program and low-wage workers whose rights were being regularly violated.
“After organizing in the more traditional labor unions for about a decade, I personally started to become frustrated with the difficulties labor unions had in organizing workers in the new economy of temporary work. This was particularly true for immigrant and other communities of color, where more and more jobs were contingent and temporary. And where more and more workers were not “employed” by the companies they worked for but instead through the use of independent contractor agreements and temporary staffing.
“In early 2000s, I left the labor movement just at the time our ad hoc committee of support for students in the City College classes began to formalize into one of the first worker centers in Chicago, the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (“CWC”). I worked with CWC for about a year before deciding to go to law school.
“I remember the exact moment I decided to go to law school. I was working at the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative. We had a tiny budget. Most of our staff was volunteer. We rented a cheap office in an old convent with rooms about 5’ X 9’. We were a small non-profit worker center with very limited resources, a situation with which I suspect almost every worker center person can identify. But at the same time, the need was so great. The further we penetrated into the vast underground economy in Chicago through our organizing, the greater the need became.
“Like many worker centers, we tried to connect workers who were the victim of wage theft to legal services.
“At the time, we thought that the lawyers were doing us a favor, providing pro bono legal services. But, like many worker center folks I have spoken to over the years, we had done much of the work, driving the worker to and from the lawyers’ offices or to court and, often, providing translation.
“One time, as I was translating a settlement agreement, I discovered that the worker we brought to the lawyer was recovering $10,000 ($5,000 in back wages and $5,000 in liquidated damages), the maximum amount he could recover. The worker had clearly been provided with excellent legal services. However, I also discovered the attorney was recovering $25,000 from the settlement for attorneys’ fees. I asked the attorney if he could share some of his fees with our organization since it was our work that had brought this worker forward and provided him with the support that gave him the courage to fight for his stolen wages. The lawyer told me, correctly as it turns out, that he couldn’t even if he wanted to because lawyer ethics rules in Illinois at the time forbid sharing legal fees with non-attorneys. When I asked if he would be able to share fees with us if I were an attorney, he said yes.
“After meeting with our collective’s steering committee and explaining what I had learned, we decided it would be a good idea for me to go to law school to bring some of the legal fees made off of low wage workers back to the organizations fighting the causes of such exploitation.
“I enrolled in Chicago- Kent College of Law. I had to work and it had a good night program. Plus Kent had a labor and employment certificate program. I taught during the day at City College. I loved the night program. All the students were working people. My wife was in nursing school at the time. When she finished her degree and started working full-time I switched to full-time law school.
“I did externships at employment firms. I did part-time work in a workers compensation firm. I knew experience working for a law firm would help me. Kent gave me some scholarship money but I left law school with a lot of debt. I am still paying that debt off.
“When I got out of law school I knew I wanted to work independently. So I set up my own private firm, Workers Law Office PC. I knew lots of people in the community who had legal problems so I co-counselled with other lawyers who split expenses and helped with the cases.
“My goal from the beginning was to create a non-profit legal clinic for workers funded by the regular legal work I did. I did not want to raise money from foundations and compete with the workers centers.
“The hardest part was the first year. I made it because my sister took out a second mortgage on her house and loaned me money to get an office started. It took me two years to pay her back. I am very fortunate because I know not everyone has a sister able and willing to help out.
“What I made with my private firm, Workers Law Office PC, I ultimately used to help set up the non-profit Working Hands Legal Clinic.”
Early on Chris was primarily responsible for working with the Illinois legislature, the Illinois Department of Labor and community advocacy organizations to create the strongest law protecting day laborers in the nation, the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act (“IDTLSA”). Chris was nominated by the Governor of Illinois to serve on the labor advisory board of the Illinois Department of Labor. He explains, “The National Employment Law Project came up with model language and 25% of my time was spent working on organizing and drafting and came up with a bill passed the legislature.”
In 2007, the Working Hands Legal Clinic (WHLC) got started and I was the first director. It was able to pay me a salary for part-time work and to fund a full-time paralegal. Chris worked there from its beginning in 2007 until 2011 when it transitioned into the Raise the Floor Alliance.
The Working Hands Legal Clinic was a non-profit legal clinic that worked with a network of community-based worker centers to support workplace justice campaigns and to bring access to legal services for low wage and immigrant Illinois workers in the area of labor and employment law. In addition to direct representation services, WHLC worked on policy issues related to employment in low-wage jobs and fights to remove barriers to low-wage workers exercising their rights and being paid for their work.
“I think of myself as an organizer who became a lawyer and believe that view shaped my approach to how we approached the law at WHLC. I, like most employment lawyers, enjoy winning a case and handing a check to a worker for her stolen wages, but I also recognize that all we have really won is for that worker to get the poverty-level wages to which she is entitled by law.
“At WHLC, we developed a 75/25 approach to our work to allow us to support worker centers, sustain ourselves and grow. Our approach was to look at the legal clinic as a business 75% of the time. We did our best to provide the highest quality of legal representation to our clients and to work with other firms that will do the same, but we also looked to generate income from those cases through the fee-shifting provisions in employment law cases. That meant, in addition to providing a legal service in appropriate cases, the staff of WHLC was available 25% of the time to provide the Chicago area worker centers with legal support without consideration of costs. The model worked fairly well, starting off with one staff person living off of a loan and growing to a peak of seven staff years later, almost entirely self-funded.”
In some cases, WHLC was able to get Cy Pres court funds left over from class actions and the like to be directed to one of the community-based worker centers. In others, WHLC secured grants to fund joint projects with the worker centers, but was able to pass through any share intended for WHLC because of its own funding source, leaving more of the funding for the worker centers. Finally, WHLC was able to provide support through donations to the non-profit organizations.
“Once the member worker centers had dedicated lawyers at its disposal, they definitely discovered ways to use us for the 25% of the time,” said Williams. “When WHLC started, we had one lawyer spending a quarter of his time on pro bono work. However, by the time WHLC grew to seven staff that meant the worker centers had nearly the equivalent of 2 full-time staff at WHLC available to them to work on pro bono projects.
“Our pro bono work generally fell in three categories: (1) legal support for worker-leaders so they could continue in their leadership role; (2) impact litigation filed in conjunction with a community campaign’ and (3) legal support for policy work.
“For example, since WHLC’s inception, the worker centers, in conjunction with the legal support from WHLC and others, have been able to make over nine amendments to Illinois laws which either provided more protections to low wage workers or stopped attempts to strip workers’ rights away. Of course, the political power to make these changes came from the workers organizing through their worker centers and fighting for these changes in the state capital and in their communities, but it did help to have legal resources available to turn ideas into legislative language and to walk the new regulations through the rules process to make sure it would be enforceable.
“Similarly, we were able to file multiple class action lawsuits in conjunction with worker center campaigns to highlight and end particularly egregious unlawful practices. WHLC was also able to assist dozens of worker center leaders with matters that, if left unresolved, threatened to take them away from organizing.
Much of their legal focus was on temporary work and staffing. “People were getting let go from their jobs and told to reapply with temp agency for the same job,” reported Williams. “Mostly immigrant workers. Employers even used police against workers.”
“For me, meaningful change for social and economic justice comes through organizing. Unions were failing to bring larger and larger sectors of the economy into the labor movement and that is why community-based worker centers began popping up around the country to help fill this gap in worker organizing and advocacy.
“Chicago alone now has eight such worker centers. Each is unique in the population it works with and in its organizing style. But each also has one thing in common, a severe lack of funding. So a primary mission of WHLC was to help bring resources to the member worker centers, whether legal or financial. And, over time, the level of collaboration between workers centers and unions has increased dramatically, making both more effective.
In 2009 and 2010, Chris worked extensively with a taskforce of state agencies, including the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) and community advocacy organizations to examine the existing wage theft statute, the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (IWPCA), and to identify ways the law could be improved and more effectively for enforced. The 2011 amendments to the IWPCA were the result of the work of this taskforce and the Director of IDOL’s vision and serves as a model for states across the country.
Williams and the team he works with have filed over 300 labor cases so far, many class actions. Lots are under the temporary staffing law of 2006 that he helped strengthen.
As he says, “The temp industry never ceases to give us reasons to file lawsuits. Temp agencies have very high turnover so they tend to do unlawful things over and over. It is not unusual to have thousands of plaintiffs.” They sued Walmart couple of times because they hired temp agencies and staffing agencies which did not pay overtime and mistreated their employees. They sued many suppliers of big companies. They were involved with other firms in a big class actions against Kelly Services for 90,000 people that reached an $11m settlement.
Recalling why he went to law school in the first place, he also advocated for a change in the rule barring attorneys from sharing fees with non-attorneys, including profit worker centers which refer a worker to an attorney. As a result of advocacy by WHLC and others, in 2010, the Illinois’ attorney ethics committee adopted the ABA model rule and now attorneys can share court-awarded fees with a non-profit organization that referred the client to the attorney so long as the referral is disclosed to the client. “In Chicago now, it is pretty standard for law firms to share fees with such non-profit organizations, including worker centers,” according to Williams.
Ultimately the WHLC was folded into a larger organization in Chicago, “Raise The Floor Alliance,” which involves all eight of the local worker centers. It provides legal support, communications, and policy work with the other centers.
“In 2011, I left WHLC and started a private practice with a partner, Alvar Ayala, called Workers’ Law Office, PC. We largely do much the same work but now we are able to work a broader range of community of worker centers, even partnering on some national cases. We are in the process now of opening a second office of Workers’ Law Office, PC in Los Angeles. The firm specializes in employment law for low-income, immigrant and other vulnerable communities.
Asked why he is committed to this model of practice, Williams responds “There is nothing new here, lots of lawyers subsidize their social justice work from private work. What is distinctive about it is the intentionality of it. When we can make money from the exploitation of workers we route some of this money back into the worker centers.”
Role Models and Inspiration
“When I was working with labor unions, I usually found the lawyers told us what not to do. However, I credit Craig Becker, now of the AFL, for demonstrating to me that there is a role for lawyers in organizing. For example, I was working on a hospital organizing campaign and he came to meet with me about identifying the bargaining unit. But unlike so many other lawyers, he didn’t focus on what we could or could not do legally. Craig simply asked “What do you want? And I’ll work with you to figure out how to do it.” We, of course, didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a lot of it and I was confident, because of Craig’s approach that he got us everything he could.
Curtis Muhammad, former SNCC organizer and lifelong activist is another role model. “He is an amazing organizer. When he worked with us in Kankakee Illinois, he could talk with anyone – young black people, older white women, everyone loved him. He is also a mentor to my partner and, as I result, I have had the privilege to spend time with him. He always challenges me to broaden my thinking, especially about race in America, and has challenged me to take chances in how I practice the law. He helps me, teaches me and challenges me to think beyond the latest legal decision and not get caught up in linear thinking. For example, he points out that the original constitution was a radical document for freedom of people breaking away from another country. We should use it as a revolutionary document!”
Chris also credits the workers he represents. “The workers who have come forward to lead campaigns or to put their names on lawsuits are inspiring to me. They stand up even though they are vulnerable to serious consequences for doing so.”
Asked to name a recent book that influenced him, he does not hesitate. “The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander was an eye-opener for me, exposing how the war on drugs and criminal justice system has been cynically used to continue to disenfranchise a whole segment of our population based on race. I know it should not have been so shocking to me, but it was. For years, much of my work was focused in the immigrant community, but more recently we have been working with worker organizations with more of an African-American base. I recall sitting in a deposition with one of my African-American clients, a class representative in a race discrimination class action, and listening to him testify about his criminal background. I could not help but note that he had not done anything that I had not done, but I am white and was in college at the time while he is black and was living on the west side of Chicago. And there I am, the lawyer, while he is the ex-con. That made the book very real for me.
Sustainability and Advice
Chris lives in Chicago and is the proud father of three children. Two older boys from prior marriage and an 8 year old girl. He is an avid bike rider and can often be spotted riding along the lakefront even on cold winter mornings. “There is a community in Chicago which will ride no matter the weather, I will not ride in snow storm but I will ride throughout the winter.”
Law students can empathize with Chris because he is now preparing to take the California bar! He is planning to open an office in Los Angeles and partner there with a former organizer who went to law school later in life.
“I tell law students, and others who ask for advice on how to do justice work, to just do it. Figure out what you want to do and then worry about how to make it work. After that, don’t regret what you do, just learn from it. I am not one of those who really loves the law for the law’s sake. It is a means to an end for me, a tool in the fight for social justice.”