The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: Defending workers rights

“The future of America as a major world power and as a decent place to live hinges on a strong middle class,” says Lela Klein, speaking about the stakes of her job as in-house counsel for a union. “And the future of the middle class in America hinges in no small part on the future of the labor movement.” It was that belief that led her to seek the legal fellowship at the SEIU (Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing union in America with about two million members) in her 3L year. She deferred that fellowship for a year to work at James and Hoffman, a leading labor law firm in Washington D.C, where she worked on union-side litigation. “I found out that litigation wasn’t for me.” She wanted closer proximity to the client and more reasonable hours.

Because Lela worked for the SEIU as an organizer before coming to law school, she knew it was a union she could get behind. After that fellowship, she took a job in Dayton, Ohio—where she hails from originally—as in-house counsel for the IUE-CWA, the Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America. Her current work environment is quite different from her experience at the SEIU headquarters in D.C., where she worked in a legal department of fifteen to twenty attorneys. At the IUE-CWA headquarters, Lela is the only lawyer in an office of fifteen people. She works most closely with the union staff representatives, who assist the local union chapters in collective bargaining. As in-house counsel, Lela’s main responsibility is to service these staff reps with support, legal research, reviewing drafts of documents, and occasionally filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. She travels in the field for this work about once a month.

But one of the things Lela enjoys about working as in-house counsel is the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. In addition to supporting staff reps, she has recently drafted a position statement for a NLRB appeal, done research for a Fifth Circuit case in which the IUE-CWA is intervening on behalf of the union party, and helped conduct a training for their Michigan members on how the state’s recent “Right to Work” legislation will affect them.

Lela’s favorite part of the job, though, is working directly with the union’s members. “Our members are great, and a lot of fun,” she says. She’s motivated by helping hardworking people. “These are good middle class jobs because people have fought to make them good middle class jobs,” Lela says. She takes pride in being on the front lines of that fight.

It is no secret that unions currently face grave challenges, but Lela sees reasons for optimism. In the four years she’s worked in the labor field, she’s seen a change toward a progressive movement that works more closely with its allies, such as civil rights groups and environmental groups (like the BlueGreen Alliance) to build a powerful coalition. For instance, while Lela was at the SEIU, the union filed an amicus brief in the Defense of Marriage Act litigation. But with unions under attack on so many fronts, she believes the labor movement has never been more in need of smart, committed people. “If you want to go somewhere where you’re really needed, come on over to the labor movement.”

Written by former 1L Section Rep Chad Baker