David Machado, Helki Philipsen and Victor Hugo Gonzalez may have only three things in common: they’re all students, with a passion for labor law, who were lucky enough to win summer fellowships from the Peggy Browning Fund, a nonprofit that provides law students with experience in public interest labor law.
After that, all bets are off.
Gonzalez, for instance, a 2L, had just attained permanent residency when, at 15, an employer refused to pay him and his fellow carpet installers for work they had completed. “Even though I had my papers,” he says, “I was scared to say or do anything for fear that the undocumented immigrants I was working with would face deportation.”
Gonzalez will spend this summer in Austin, at the Equal Justice Center, an organization that empowers “low-income workers, families, and communities to achieve fair treatment in the workplace and in the justice system—regardless of immigration status.” There, he hopes to gain skills that he can use after graduation to help Hispanic immigrants.
Helki Philipsen, a 3L, also got interested in labor law as an adolescent during frequent after-school trips to the Red Emma bookstore in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood, where she fell for the union songs of Phil Ochs and read about major figures of the labor movement.
Although Helki clerked for a small firm, she didn’t consider becoming a lawyer until presented with a towering stack of insurance documents for a case the firm was handling. “Halfway through the stack,” she remembers, “I realized I was totally into [my work] because I knew that the key to cracking our case was in there. I said, if I can think that this is interesting I can probably do this for a job!”
Her decision made, labor law felt like a natural area to pursue. This summer, she will be working for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), in Washington D.C.
Growing up in Brazil, most of the workers that 3L David Machado knew, including his parents, were deprived of basic rights. Although life improved when his family moved to New York, major inequities remained: “A lot of workers in poor communities work beyond their normal hours and don’t get compensated,” he says, “and a lot of the factories here [offer] deplorable conditions. Low wage workers here don’t have a voice, he concludes, “especially undocumented workers [who are] afraid of getting exposed or deported.”
In college, David decided that “going to law school would be the best way to positively impact my community and fight for workers’ rights.” He’s tenaciously pursued his goal, interning last summer at the New York City Law Department’s Labor and Employment Law Division and working this semester for the American Federation of Government Employees. Thanks to the Peggy Browning Fellowship, he will spend this summer representing unions in the labor law division of Meyer, Szuozzi, English & Klein, in New York.