Amazon. Starbucks. Apple. Across the country, employees at these and hundreds of other major companies have recently come together to spur on a national movement toward unionization.
For labor attorney Deborah Willig, however, the fight for union recognition is not simply an issue of the moment: It’s her life’s work.
Willig has been at the forefront of union-side labor litigation for more than 45 years, winning her clients precedent-setting benefits and spearheading progressive policies in an array of workplaces. She and others at her firm, Willig Williams & Davidson, have represented public school teachers, municipal employees, cafeteria workers, restaurant employees, teamsters and more, all in their fight for higher wages and better benefits. Willig has led the core negotiating team in collective bargaining agreements on behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and white-collar employees of the City of Philadelphia, both relationships that have gone on for decades. Recently, the firm has expanded into new sectors, including representing athletes from the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association in their effort to raise wages and ensure player safety.
In one prominent negotiation in the mid-to-late ‘90s, Willig represented reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer in their fight to win healthcare benefits for domestic partners. At the time, major companies were just starting to grant domestic partnership benefits. But, as Willig explains, the trustees of the Philadelphia Inquirer weren’t willing to award the benefits because “one fellow just didn’t believe in it.”
In her soul, Willig knew that was wrong. So, armed with data, experts and compassion, Willig took the matter to arbitration and won. Those benefits have remained in place since, granting access to life-saving healthcare for families of all kinds. “I still get an annual note from a now-retired reporter thanking me for getting that case tried and extending domestic partner benefits to her family,” says Willig.
That negotiation wasn’t the first time Willig broke new ground on the path to progress. In 1992, Willig became the first female Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. She continues to support those fighting for equality. On the recent wave of labor unionization, Willig says, “I think Generation Z understands the notion of collective action and the fact that there is power in numbers. They are and will continue to be a force in the resurgence of the labor movement.”
In recognition of her career-long unparalleled commitment to workers’ rights and a more equitable legal profession, Deborah Willig was inducted into Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame in 2021.
Lawdragon: What brought you specifically to labor and employment law?
Deborah Willig: I was always interested in labor law because of familial history. My grandfather was the president of the largest local Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in the early 1900s. My sister, may her soul rest in peace, was a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. My mom was a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. So, I grew up talking around the dinner table, particularly with my grandfather, about the benefits of union membership.
I began working with the predecessor to my firm in 1976. In 1979 the firm split up and one of the senior partners, Richard Kirschner, a colleague, Jonathan Walters and me to join him to form Kirschner, Walters and Willig. Over time, those partners left and the firm became Willig, Williams and Davidson.
LD: Were there any early moments that motivated you to keep practicing labor law exclusively?
DW: One of my first labor arbitration cases involved three Black nurses. They all worked at what was then the Philadelphia General Hospital, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47. In 1978, there was a City wide strike. All three of these employees were Union stewards and picket captains. After the strike they were all fired. The hospital claimed they were all terminated for theft of time. We claimed that they were fired because of their union activity and leadership.
Generation Z understands the notion of collective action and the fact that there is power in numbers. They are and will continue to be a force in the resurgence of the labor movement.
I was raised in a family where I was taught that inequality and unfairness need to be redressed. So, it was a natural path toward representing workers like those women.
LD: Did you have any mentors starting out?
DW: I had several. Esther Polen, who was, I believe was the first woman lawyer at Fox Rothschild. Norma Shapiro, who was the first woman partner at Dechert, Price & Rhoads and the first female Judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Miriam Gafni, who was a colleague at the firm that I joined in 1976, was probably the most brilliant lawyer I have ever met. Finally, Arline Lotman, who was the Executive Director of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in 1972. I was her administrative assistant after college, and she was the one who persuaded me to go to law school.
I learned an immense amount from these four women, and probably wouldn't be the person or lawyer I am today without their assistance. All of them were ahead of their time, committed to women’s rights and very generous with their time and advice.
LD: I’m so glad you had women to look up to at that time.
Tell me about your involvement with the public school teachers' union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. How did you first become involved with that organization?
DW: Our firm and I were hired to represent the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in 1983, and we've been representing them ever since. I have been a part of the PFT negotiating team since the beginning, so it's been almost 40 years now.
LD: How have you seen things change over those 40 years?
DW: Well, every new administration at the School District has a different approach to its relationship with its employees and their respective unions. [Former superintendent] Paul Vallas, for instance, initially tried to have a management company take over the entire school district because he believed in privatization. We fought that tooth and nail and won.
In 2014, now retired superintendent Bill Hite implemented massive layoffs. For some reason, the school district’s counsel advised the District that it could legally “cancel” the teachers’ contracts. My partner Ralph Teti and our WWD team fought that before the Court of Common Pleas, the Commonwealth Court and finally before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. After changing law firms three different times – for each level of the litigation – the School District got its head handed to it. I think the District fully expected to be able to cancel the contracts, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said a resounding NO. It was a huge victory.
LD: What triggered those attempted contract cancellations?
DW: It was driven by money in part, but that's not the only thing. It was really the Board and the Administration believing that the collective bargaining agreement provided too many “rights” to the teachers. The District wanted to have complete command and control. After that defeat, that attitude has been slowly changing in the school district.
LD: How are you able to bring your clients that sense of control instead?
DW: We believe in what we do, so these core beliefs make it easy to do the work well. We rarely do litigation on a single issue. Our relationships with our clients are ongoing relationships. They come to rely on our knowledge and expertise and we are able to work together to fight unreasonable management demands.
Some issues also become very easy to navigate because we have the evidence on our side. I'm involved in a set of negotiations now where most of the employees are enrolled in a high-deductible health plan because the premium co-pay for a pretty meager HMO is unaffordable. The studies about these plans are almost indisputable: they conclude that high-deductible health plans are terrible for people who make less than $75,000 a year. So, these folks don't really have access to healthcare. The folks at our firm and I believe that health care is a fundamental right. When you firmly believe in your soul in a concept or a right, it makes it easier to advocate for it.
LD: Which union are you representing in that negotiation?
I believe that health care is a fundamental right. When you firmly believe in your soul in a concept or a right, it makes it easier to advocate for it.
DW: We represent AFSCME District Council 47, which organized the employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has a budget of over $60M a year. They have an endowment of over $600M. But there are very few people in the bargaining unit who make anywhere close to $75,000. So very few have what we would consider adequate health care. And, if you compare the museum to their peers, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art, or the California museums, those institutions provide much better healthcare. You just want to say, "What are these people thinking?"
LD: If the data's on your side and if peer museums are on your side, what kind of arguments do you see businesses like the art museum making?
DW: They're not making any valid or substantive arguments. They just don't want to spend the money.
This situation is not unlike what I faced in 2021 while representing the National Women's Soccer League Players Association. They were an organization that wasn’t used to being unionized. Museum Management doesn't like ceding control and they're taking a long time getting used to it.
LD: Tell me about that negotiation.
DW: The National Women’s Soccer League Players Association hired us back in 2020. Initially, we were negotiating with two lawyers from a management law firm, the League Commissioner and the inside general counsel. None of the owners were at the table.
Very few of these clubs make a lot of money, so they look at negotiations from that perspective, and I understand that. But the owners did not focus on what was significant to the players. Salary was a very big issue; but equally as important was player health and safety. Players had questions like, “What happens if I'm injured? Do I have a right to see a doctor of my choosing? Who's going to pay for that? What happens if the doctor is in New York and I'm playing in Oregon?"
And we spent an enormous amount of time on issues you might not expect, like, “What is composition of the the pitch? In other words what kind of a field surface do soccer players play on? Is it grass or turf? Is it artificial or natural? How do you take care of it?” All of those factors are key issues when it comes to player injuries. I should have counted the number of hours that we spent on surfaces. It was beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
LD: What finally allowed you to reach an agreement in that negotiation?
DW: We turned a corner when the owners were finally at the table, we could see each face-to-face and hear each other’s points of view.
LD: In many of these negotiations you’ve mentioned getting better healthcare for employees. Why is that fight important to you?
DW: My core belief is that healthcare should be a right.
I mentioned my grandfather was involved in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union. Because of his union membership, my grandparents got free healthcare for all of their lives. That's how I grew up watching the world. Now, I see people who can't get surgery, or who can't adequately care for a child because they're going to have to take too much money out of their pocket. People having to make choices between food and medicine.
Sadly, I don’t think that I will see a real improvement on this issue in my lifetime. So, the fight is for my clients. In every negotiation, no matter the size of the union, healthcare is the number one or two priority.
LD: Tell me about becoming the first woman Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. What were the joys and challenges there?
DW: Well, the first challenge was to get there.
I ran in 1986 and lost. I don't know the more recent history, but I lost in what was then the closest election in Bar history.
There were not-so-subtly sexist comments made during the campaign like,"Well, she's abrasive; she political; she's a union labor lawyer." So, in 1989 I decided to run again. It’s funny; I could give you the names of four or five people who ran and lost the first time, and ran the second time unopposed. They weren't going to let a woman do that. At least, not the first woman.
LD: Of course not. So, after you were elected, what kinds of changes did you make as Chancellor?
DW: Generally speaking, the Chancellor-elect appoints the vice chairs of the Association’s many committees. Fifty or 60 percent, probably more, of the vice chairs I appointed were women. I remember a former chancellor asking me, "Why did you do that?" I replied, "Well, why didn't you?"
I believe I actually changed the face of the Bar Association. That change has continued on to this day, because now there have been eight or 10 women chancellors, where in the 180 years before me there had been none.
LD: That’s incredible lasting change.
How does your firm uphold the practices and values that you hope to see in the companies you negotiate with?
DW: From the beginning, in the ‘80s, we made sure our employees had appropriate maternity leave and we were among the first firms to offer part-time employment. And being part-time did not exclude women from being on the partnership track. We made it clear that we were family-friendly.
Also, the practice of union-side labor law is a labor of love. We represent labor unions whose budget comes from union dues, so you're talking about working people who pay either a flat fee or some very, very small percentage of their salary. So, having the union budget versus the Philadelphia Inquirer or the teachers’ budget versus the Philadelphia School District (which has a budget of $3B) makes this a very different practice.
A number of the more senior partners in our firm, including me, have been offered jobs on the management side at salaries many times more than we're making. We’ve always turned them down. I once explained to the management partner of one of the biggest firms in Philadelphia, who asked me 30 years ago to chair the labor department in his firm, that my grandfather would turn over in his grave. He asked me why.
I explained that I could not argue for example that an employee who's sick with cancer and has exceeded their number of sick days should be fired for abuse of sick leave. I just could not make that argument with clear conscience. We have a team of lawyers who believe in these core values as well. And who are committed to women's rights, civil rights, voters’ rights and workers’ rights. Equality. Period. And leveling the playing field.
As I said over 30 years ago when I became Chancellor, I am incredibly lucky. I love what I do; I love who I do it with and I love who I do it for. That hasn’t changed.