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A Q&A with Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School
by: Lisa Brem*
Recently, HLS Case Writing Fellow Brittany Deitch and I worked with Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, to create two case studies for her spring 2018 seminar entitled “Organizing for Economic Justice in the New Economy”: the first case study — “Worker Centers” — explores how worker centers have grown in both numbers and power as they seek to fill the gaps left by the decline of the union movement in the United States. Part 1 of the case study examines the challenges and opportunities faced by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and its affiliated National Guestworker Alliance. Part 2 gives a brief overview of the legal framework that defines and affects labor and workforce issues in the United States.
The second case study — “OUR Walmart: Online-Offline Organizing” — showcases a different model of worker organization that grew from employee activities at Walmart. Students reading both case studies will be able to analyze and draw conclusions about the efficacy of different types of worker centers and the roles they play in the larger workforce ecosystem.
Lisa Brem (LB): Why did you choose to create these case studies for your course?
Sharon Block (SB): One of my objectives in teaching this course was to demonstrate to students that this is a very exciting time for people interested in economic justice issues. Because of the historically low levels of union density in our country, more and more energy is going into testing how the law can facilitate new forms of worker organizations. There are a number of innovative and dynamic people leading these organizing efforts. They are confronting many new and challenging legal and strategic questions. With these case studies, I hoped to help students put themselves in the shoes of these leaders so they can appreciate how interesting work in these kinds of organizations can be.
LB: What challenges and opportunities did teaching these case studies present?
SB: One challenge presented by teaching these case studies is that they each capture a story that is on-going. Many case studies look back at a scenario that has already resolved so that students can see the outcome of the decisions that are the subject of the case studies. In contrast, these case studies address situations that are still unfolding – some consequences of the decisions analyzed are clear but many are not. Because I was able to have the principle players in the case study scenarios come to class, I hope that that challenge became an opportunity. The students were able to feel more involved in the scenarios and even feel like they may have an impact on the outcomes of these unfolding stories through the questions and issues they were able to raise with the principals who came to class.
LB: What are the major takeaways that students will learn by reading and discussing these case studies?
SB: I hope that the major takeaways that students will learn will be: (1) although laws may be enacted for a particular purpose, their impact may change over time, producing very different results than those intended; (2) creative lawyers can use the law as a tool to advance policy objectives that may be very different than those intended by the laws’ drafters; and (3) moments of crisis can create great opportunities for trying new solutions to old problems.
LB: How did the students react to the case studies?
SB: The students seemed to enjoy the immediacy of the situations covered in the case studies. I enjoyed seeing how the case studies gave them a new perspective on situations that were familiar to them. For example, all of the students were familiar with Walmart and many had patronized Walmart stores. The OUR Walmart case study gave them new insights into what it was like to work at a Walmart and the community among Walmart workers that would not be evident to customers. Similarly, most of the students knew generally about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans but learned a great deal more about how long-standing and complex the impact of the storm was on the New Orleans labor market and the lives of the people who lived and worked there.
LB: What would you tell (advice you would give) other faculty looking to use these case studies?
SB: I would recommend that if faculty use these case studies with students who haven’t taken labor law, that they spend a little time helping students understand traditional worker organizing so that the students can appreciate how innovative the leaders featured in these cases studies are.
Learn more about the Worker Centers and OUR Walmart and download both case studies for free on our website.
Quick facts on Worker Centers:
Case Study length: 37 pages including attachments. The case study includes Part 1 (general background, 22 pages) and Part 2 (legal background, 15 pages).
Format: Worker Centers is best used to facilitate an 80- to 90-minute in-class discussion on worker centers in general, and the issues facing the New Orleans Center in particular. Some or all of the discussion questions listed in the teaching note can be provided to students prior to class along with the case study, to allow them to formulate ideas that they can share in class.
Quick facts on OUR Walmart:
Case Study length: 8 pages including attachments.
Format: OUR Walmart is best used to facilitate an 80- to 90-minute in-class discussion on worker centers in general, and the issues facing OUR Walmart in particular. Some or all of the discussion questions listed in the teaching note can be provided to students prior to class along with the case study, to allow them to formulate ideas that they can share in class.
Teaching Notes for both case studies are available for free download to qualified educators on Harvard Law School | The Case Studies website. Note that you must be logged in as a registered educator on our site to download teaching notes.
*Lisa Brem is the Managing Director of Teaching, Learning & Curriculum Solutions (TLC) at the HLS Library. The Case Studies Program and Case Development are integral parts of the TLC.