March 30, 2005

Gregory Watchman J.D. '85 Talks on Labor Rights

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Gregory Watchman J.D. ’85 spoke yesterday afternoon about Civil Rights and Worker Protections in the Mancuso Amphitheater of Myron Taylor Hall. Watchman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., works in employment law and public policy.

Watchman began his speech with a discussion of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where a fire on March 25, 1911 killed 146 of the 500 women and girls working inside due to locked doors, a faulty fire escape and a lack of a fire protection system.

Watchman cited this fire as one of the major catalysts for modern conceptions of social responsibility in the workplace.

“[The fire] spurred a lot of effort … to implement fire codes and protect workers,” Watchman said.

Watchman told the audience that, while there have been many improvements since 1911, tragedies still occur in the workplace today. He cited a fire at an Imperial Foods Factory in North Carolina on September 3, 1991 where 25 workers died and another 55 were injured. To further his case on the importance of job safety, Watchman said that more people die a year from job-related conditions than died in the entire Vietnam War. He also mentioned that there was no monument in Washington commemorating these workers.

To the students in the audience Watchman said, “There is a lot of work left to be done … on job safety … American working families need the help of smart lawyers like you.”

Watchman then discussed cases he had come across in his career, working pro bono, in the private sector, and in the public sector.

He mentioned housing inequality tests and cases that the Washington Law Committee had run while he did pro bono work there. They would send African-American and European-American people to a rental complex the same day and see how the landlords responded. “Literally 50 percent of the time the African-American was told there was no housing available while the white person was told housing was available,” Watchman said.

Other public policy topics Watchman discussed included intense cases of sexual harassment, child labor in other countries and problems that temporary and part-time workers face. Because employee protection laws were drafted for full-time workers, many non-full-time workers have lower pay and no benefits.

The main focus of Watchman’s speech, however, continued to be worker safety. After work with both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Watchman was the acting director of the Occupation Safety and Health Administration for one year.

He said that OSHA is not very well liked because businesses think they do too much and labor unions think they do too little. Watchman showed examples of advertisements and editorials on OSHA in which the organization was compared to the Nazi Gestapo, the Soviet KGB and Frankenstein. After OSHA tried to ban smoking in the workplace, one man in Texas sent Watchman a letter calling him a “lost little liberal boy.”

Watchman allowed the comments to be taken as jokes, remarking that public interest work will always be the target of negative attitudes.

“If you are going to do public interest work, you are going to face adversity,” Watchman said. “It’s really important work.”

Watchman finished his speech by talking about “whistleblowers,” individuals who face major opponents in order to expose the truth. Famous examples of recent scandals include the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq, Vioxx’s negative effects and resulting questions about the Food and Drug Administration’s relationship with drug companies as well as the Enron scandal. Watchman touted these people as modern day heroes.

“When I think about what’s rewarding in this work, it’s the people you meet,” Watchman said. “[They are] modern day Davids that take on institutional Goliaths.”

Watchman has held many positions in the private and public sphere and currently works as the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit advocacy group and law firm.

“GAP is a non-profit whistleblower,” said Karen Comstock, the assistant dean for public service at Cornell Law School, in her introduction of Watchman.

The speech was part of the Cyrus Mehri ’88 Public Interest Speaker Series. Comstock told the audience that Mehri had started the program as an attempt to bring more public policy lawyers and advocates to campus.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staff Writer