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| 14 minutes read

CMO Series REPRESENTS - From Roots to Rights: Lessons from a Labor Attorney

Labor attorneys are essential in managing the intricacies of union law, protecting workers' rights, and promoting fair and just labor practices. Carving out a career to represent those without a voice takes true determination and passion. 

On this episode of CMO Series REPRESENTS, Julia Howard is lucky to welcome Jessica Caggiano, Partner at Willig, Williams & Davidson who has done just that. 

Jessica joins the series to uncover the influences that sparked her journey, and the insights that have shaped her career as a dedicated labor attorney.

Jessica and Julia cover:

  • How Jessica’s upbringing influenced her career journey into becoming a labor attorney
  • The powerful impact of collective action Jessica's role in the application of that
  • Jessica’s career challenges and successes in the continuous battle for fair treatment and recognition of union members
  • The importance of self-educating about one’s rights and being aware of the appropriate measures and procedures that can be undertaken to rectify unfair situations
  • Advice for aspiring advocates interested in union law and how to navigate it

Julia: Welcome, everyone, to the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast, where we will discuss all things diversity, inclusion in professional service marketing. Taking a stand on a cause is one thing, but carving out an entire career to represent those without a voice takes passion and grit. On this episode of CMO Series REPRESENTS, I am lucky enough to welcome someone who has done just that. I'm honored to welcome Jessica Caggiano, partner at Willig, Williams & Davidson to the series to uncover the influences that sparked her journey and the insights that has shaped her career as a dedicated labor attorney. Welcome, Jessica. How are you doing today in beautiful Philadelphia?

Jessica: It's beautiful and overcast here. I guess it's not always sunny. How are you, Julia?

Julia: I'm great. Down here in Washington, DC, we have one of our first sunny days in, I think a few weeks at this point, but it's really great to be on here with another fellow Pennsylvanian. I'm originally from Pittsburgh, so I understand the weather.

Jessica: Absolutely. 

Julia: So Jessica, I remember when we first met hearing your story from childhood to now as an attorney, it was so inspiring. So let's talk about it. Let's start with how did your upbringing shape your decision to become a labor attorney?

Jessica: Sure. Well, I think like almost all Americans, I come from a family of immigrants, who came here for a better life and they were all working class people. So growing up, my parents always were, I saw my parents working hard and they instilled those values in us. But I was also very aware from a young age that my family was able to succeed through, you know, in no small part because of unions and what unions have done and what they advocate for, for people who some people don't realize, but they help all working people.

So, for whatever reason, maybe it was cultural. From a young age, I was very much aware of that, that it was hard work was important, but that it wasn't just an individual's hard work. It was, you know, a group of workers coming together that could really make a change and make sure that they were treated fairly, that they had fair wages. So unions, I knew were why my parents were able to give us the life that they gave us, working one job each instead of two or three, being able to buy a home, being able to send us to a good school. So I guess culturally, we were very, you know, pro-union and all the ingredients were sort of there for me to maybe do this sort of work. And all that was needed, I guess, was a spark.

Julia: Yeah, that's amazing. Was there any point in your childhood now that you look back at it that really sparked you to want to become an attorney and advocate for people in unions and people that don't have as much of a voice?

Jessica: I think as opposed to maybe one moment, it sort of came on in waves. My father always had a passion for aeronautics, so he became a machinist, an airline mechanic. And when I was very young, probably three years old, he worked for Eastern Airlines. And there had been a series of labor strikes, but there was a massive strike in March of 1989, sort of a legendary strike to those of us in the labor movement. The movie Wall Street is sort of not so loosely based on this particular strike. I actually was at a conference the other day and the strike was mentioned by the presenters who were talking about labor strikes under the Railway Labor Act. So it was unique in a lot of ways. It was large scale. It was lengthy. I was only three and I was on the picket line on my dad's shoulders. So that sort of was something that I always remembered. I remember my dad working 24-7 at whatever jobs that he could to feed us during that time. My mom was pregnant with my sister. And they had three kids and they had a house and, you know, they were on strike for a long time. So I remember seeing him do whatever he could do. And I remember seeing my mom do whatever she could do. 

And so that sort of set the tone. And then, you know, I don't think I can say to you that at three, I knew I was going to be a labor lawyer, but it changed the trajectory of my life. So my interest sort of came on in waves after that. I grew up knowing this was important. I saw my family, including my father as a union steward, as a union member, working at other airlines and in other capacities as I grew older. So I would say that was the pivotal moment. And I do like to joke that Frank Lorenzo, who is known for his union busting at Eastern Airlines, sort of created me like a union side labor attorney, probably like the worst thing he could create. So I think that was probably a significant moment in terms of why I ended up on this path.

Julia: It sounds like you might need to send him a gift basket for all the inspiration. No, but I think your story is so interesting and it's beautiful in the way that your childhood and what you saw your parents struggle with and what you struggle with as a child with the strikes and everything that was happening, especially in Pennsylvania, which is a huge union state, and how you really wanted to advocate for those people now. So thinking about as an attorney and especially as a partner now, have there been any cases that has really kind of challenged or resonated with you based off of, you know, what you went through as your childhood?

Jessica: Sure. I can speak in, I think, general terms about some of them. A lot of what I do is because it's because there are cases that arise as a result of the party's private agreement, their collective bargaining agreement. They're not things that generally get published or are searchable online. But I can speak generally, I guess, about two things. I had one case in particular that was very challenging. I had an employer that employed a lot of health care professionals. The union that I was representing, represented the health care professionals. And before, you know, the union got involved and advocated for the employees, the employer was sort of successfully reducing the number of employees that were represented or covered by the labor agreement. They came up with, I guess, what they thought was a clever idea about creating, you know, it wasn't really a separate entity, but they sort of acted as though it was different and hiring the same people, the same medical professionals into that entity and then taking the position that they were not covered and that they were not eligible to be represented by the union. And over time, right, the strategy was sort of working and the size of the represented employees was shrinking. The size of the unrepresented employees was growing. And the worst part and probably one of the most challenging parts was that the new medical employees that were told that they were not eligible to be part of the union tried to sign union representation cards. And the employer was sort of like, sorry, not sorry. 

So anyway, we had a multi-day arbitration. I think there were four or five different procedural arguments that were leveled at us, including you're in the wrong place type of arguments. And really what the union wanted and what the workers wanted was just that these people who had the same jobs as the people covered by the labor agreement would be treated as though they were represented and not used as a tool to reduce the size of the group. So for workers, the power is in numbers, collective action. So we spent a lot of time with a really wonderful group of working professionals who are dedicated to their union. So these were the workers themselves. They put so much time in. They were so diligent. And it was thanks to their efforts and the collective efforts of our team that we were able to succeed. And not only getting the labor arbitrator to declare that the employer had violated the collective bargaining agreement by treating these people as non-bargaining unit members, but also that the employer owed make-whole relief to the employees who were denied their rights and owed money to the union in the form of lost dues opportunity by its wrongful actions. And, you know, there were some other make-whole remedies as well, but it was really a tough case, a long case, had to prove sort of, you know, that the unit was shrinking over time and all the different factors and overcome the procedural arguments. And it was really an extraordinary optimal remedy. I think it was the right remedy, but it was a really great result. So that was a challenging case that comes to mind.

Julia: Wow. Yeah, my heart sunk a little when you started talking about these people not getting the pay that they were supposed to and being ignored when it came to unionizing. And, you know, I so often see things in the news that are similar to this. And I really do wonder, like, how did it get to this point? And why are these people not being heard? But it's incredible that, you know, you've spent your time and your life dedicated to giving those people a voice and giving them the representation they deserve and obviously the life they deserve. Because these union workers, of course, you know, they're doing heavy labor activities like physical activities, mentally draining, and they deserve so much more. So one of the points that you had brought up was, you know, collective bargaining, which kind of brings me to my next question is, you know, people that want to advocate for unions or even just advocate for the groups that they're currently in to have, you know, better wages, to have, you know, be more respected in their field. What would you offer as advice to people wanting to get into this?

Jessica: Sure. I guess there's some sort of practical, you know, first steps advice. And then there's the sort of advice that's, you know, forming your strategy and how are you going to go about doing things. But I guess what I would first say to someone is, you know, you need to know your rights and you need to know your worth. Unions are work unions are workers they aren't some other thing or entity that really exists outside of the workers that decide you know to create the union or to be a part of the union they don't like swoop in and save you because you are the union so you have to be willing to stand together and put in the work that's sort of like my big picture advice I guess in terms of strategy and first steps you know I loved going to school and I love being educated. And I know if I were in that position, the first thing I would want to do if I wasn't familiar with how unions work or how to form one is I would do some research and get myself educated. And then I would look to my coworkers and talk to them about it, engage interest and try to get educated together. And then if it came to a point where we thought we were ready, I'd consider reaching out to one of the many different either international unions or regional unions and try to get in touch with an experienced labor organizer who can really guide you through what can be a complex process, depending on the nature of your industry and the work that you do.

Julia: Absolutely. I think that's really great advice. And I'm sure a lot of our listeners come from families like ourselves where, you know, your first or second generation, your family came here to give their children a better life. And a lot of people end up in those, you know, labor-heavy union jobs. And so I think that's really great advice that they can take if they're experiencing some of these problems. And, of course, hopefully reach out to you after this. Wouldn't that be ideal? 

Jessica: Yeah. 

Julia: You've done so many great things. 

Jessica: Sure. I mean, I can certainly help point people in the right direction if I can't help myself. That's for sure.

Julia: That's amazing. And I do hope people end up doing that. And speaking of doing that, you know, you sound so fulfilled doing your work. And I see, you know, for the people that can't see you right now, you're smiling as you're talking about all this. What do you think is the most fulfilling aspect of your work? Like, what do you wake up in the morning and you think, I love my job because I do this?

Jessica: Honestly, because so much of this type of work happens privately and is almost never publicized, you don't get that. As you do in some other areas of the law, you don't get that big, you know, wow, I got this multi-million dollar jury verdict and everyone can see it and I feel so good and et cetera. You have to find fulfillment in smaller things and you have to find fulfillment in them because of what you really, if you're not finding fulfillment in what you're doing for others, there's no other sort of external reward. So I do a lot of labor arbitration. That's a small part of being a union side labor attorney, but I do a lot of it. And oftentimes it's something like the case I described. Oftentimes it's helping someone who we believe has been wrongfully fired get their job back. And that's, it can't be underscored. When you've been wrongfully fired, if you've experienced it, you've not only suffered financial, but professional, personal losses. It's really devastating to families. And I get to advocate for you and the union gets to give you a voice and hopefully right that wrong. Those are the most fulfilling things when you get to tell that person, right, you know, you've got your life back. You've got another chance. Or, you know, arbitrator said, you know, they were wrong. They were just wrong. You never should have been, you know, separated at all. And we've gotten you everything we can get you back. That, you know, that feels good. And thank goodness that there are some things like that because it can be, you know, it can be a grind being an attorney and a lot of attorneys struggle. Have a lot of cases and, you know, it's, it's hard sometimes to find that fulfillment. 

So it's great that it's there. And, you know, every once in a while we get, you know, we, we do work that does, you know, get a little bit more attention or it's capable of getting attention publicly. I was involved in negotiating the first ever collective bargaining agreement for the National Women's Soccer League Players Association. Players associations often are actual unions, even though they are called players associations. Some of them are collectives that aren't formally labor unions, but the NWSLPA is one of my clients, and they are a labor union in every sense of the word. And so that was a project that took 18 months and hundreds of hours of negotiating in person and on Zoom, sort of beginning at the mid-early stages of the pandemic, And we were able to achieve a wonderful first collective bargaining agreement for them with not only improvements to wages in terms and conditions of employment, but some things that really I think were firsts among professional athletes, including paid mental health leave. And, you know, a form of free agency for those that follow sports. It's pretty extraordinary to have free agency at all in any form in a first contract. We were able to achieve those things for players, and we were able to do that under some pretty challenging conditions during those negotiations. So that was wonderful, too. And those sorts of things and being able to make improvements and help the union achieve its goals for its members is extremely fulfilling.

Julia: Yeah, it sounds like it's very fulfilling. And you know, I read a little bit about the women's national soccer team, some of the work, you know, that they were trying to get out of not just you, but in general, equal pay. And I know that's something that has been on the table for a very long time in women's sports in general. And coming from somebody, I was an athlete at Penn State, and I got to see it firsthand is, you know, Men's sports get paid significantly more than women's in our country, and we're making a lot of efforts to even that scale. And it's really, really incredible that you're one of the people on the forefront of that and supporting these women to get the equal pay that we deserve, which kind of brings me to a question of what kind of legacy do you want to leave as a labor attorney? Because, like you said, you're not necessarily getting all the publication in the world. It's not being televised like some of these big cases are. But how would you like to leave that legacy?

Jessica: The best legacy that I could leave is… It's purely results-based, right? A country here, because I obviously practice in this country. It would be great if it was worldwide, but the best legacy I think I can leave is a country with more workers, with representation than we have now, and workers well aware of and equipped to enforce their rights and demand better for their families so that every generation grows up with the opportunities that I had, which I think we all tend to take for granted. And it's not something that's a guarantee. You can just look around the world. It's not a guarantee that a country is just going to continue to improve, that the economic conditions of its middle and working classes are just going to continue to go up. That's just not the way things work. It's something that, you know, I believe labor and workers have achieved for themselves. The gains that they've made have been through a lot of effort. And so sort of like don't slow down when you're approaching the finish line. Right. If there is a finish line for this, you got to keep going hard. If you want to keep keep up and keep the gains that we've got, we've made and then achieve more than that.

Julia: So reflecting on our conversation it's so evident that your dedication and your resilience have been very instrumental in navigating through challenging cases and achieving remarkable successes within laborers and people's rights so with that Jessica I want to extend my gratitude for joining today on the CMO series represents podcast to all of our listeners I hope you found this episode as enlightening and as powering as I have so let's continue to heed Jessica's call to action, standing up for what's right, advocating for a more just and equitable society, and stay tuned for more engaging discussions on the CMO Series Represents, where we continue to amplify voices that inspire change. Until next time, thanks Jessica. 

Jessica: Thanks Julia.


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