A beauty salon in the northern California coastal town of Watsonville might have had a very smart hairstylist on its staff these days if it weren’t for a bitter cannery strike that began in 1985 and dragged on for 18 months.
Maribel Medina, then a high school senior who was leaning toward a career in cosmetology, was pulled into the middle of the labor dispute because her parents worked in the vegetable canneries and processing plants that made Watsonville at that time the “frozen-food capital of the world.” They, like many of the striking workers, were immigrants from Mexico who spoke very little English. Medina, who came to California with her family when she was 2, became an interpreter and spokesperson for the strikers, and in that capacity got to look over the shoulders of the lawyers who were drawn to the cause. That’s when it crossed her mind to go into law.
Her involvement in the labor battle didn’t go unnoticed at her school. “Fortunately, I had some great teachers who asked me where I was going to college. They told me, ‘You know, there’s this great place called Berkeley and you would fit right in,’” she recalls. She was also lucky to have parents who, despite their own lack of formal schooling, demanded academic excellence from Medina and her two sisters. Her grades were good enough for her to be accepted at the University of California at Berkeley. She went on to get a master’s degree in public administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a law degree at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Today, at the age of 36, Medina is special counsel to the Board of Education of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a massive entity with more than 1,000 schools, three-quarters of a million students and an annual budget that is almost three times bigger than that of Afghanistan.
Appointed to the job in January, Medina offers independent advice to the school board on issues such as the massive $14 billion school construction campaign that is now under way and will continue through 2012. She also offers advice to the management side on sometimes contentious labor issues involving United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing the district’s 34,000 teachers.
Negotiations with the union, in fact, were one of the first challenges that confronted Medina in her new job. By January, contract talks had been under way for more than a year and had made little progress. UTLA began circulating petitions of “no confidence” in district superintendent Roy Romer and lambasting him in the press as “very hardheaded” for refusing to commit to a pay increase. It began to look like Medina might end up right back where she was when she first started thinking about studying law — in the thick of a nasty labor dispute.
But Medina says she never felt like she was one of the “bad guys” in representing management. For one thing, she says, the UTLA isn’t anything like the grossly overmatched cannery workers whose fight she joined in 1985. “Unions are now very sophisticated,” she says. The teachers union had the wherewithal to analyze the district’s budget and could see for itself the dilemma that the superintendent and board faced amid the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. “We’re all struggling to make ends meet,” Medina says. “I see us as being on the same team. The school board values teachers, and they want to make sure the teachers get what they rightly deserve. We opened our books and said, ‘Help us if you can.’”
And they did. In April, UTLA members defied the recommendation of their own House of Representatives and voted by the narrowest margin in union history to approve a contract that gave them a 2 percent increase in salary. The contract spared Medina the experience, at least for a little while, of winding up on an unfamiliar side of a union picket line.
Her first job out of law school was with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a New York-based Wall Street law firm, where she did corporate work for a couple of years. The tough “boot camp” regimen that is standard practice for a junior associate working long hours on high-stakes, multibillion-dollar deals was “fantastic in terms of the legal training I got,” she says.
The job eventually brought Medina to Los Angeles by way of a Fried Frank fellowship that allowed her to spend a year as a staff attorney for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She devoted a good deal of her time that year campaigning against Proposition 227, the antibilingual education initiative, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in June of 1998 and which she now has a hand in implementing.
After her stint at MALDEF, Medina joined the firm of Richards Watson & Gershon, where she had her first exposure to the public law arena while working on behalf of clients such as the Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority. A partner from Richards Watson who became the Pasadena city attorney eventually recruited Medina to join that office as a senior land-use specialist. There she spent four years and had some hot-potato assignments, including negotiations over possible use of the historic Rose Bowl by a professional football team.
The “monster project” that consumed much of her time in the Pasadena city attorney’s office was updating the master land-use plan and defending the master park plan in litigation brought by environmental groups who asserted that it allowed too much development and preserved too little open space.
As a hired gun for an alleged violator of environmental laws, Medina might have been demonized by the plaintiffs, but instead she earned their respect. “She staunchly defended the city’s rights but she was as friendly as you can be in an adversarial process,” recalls Craig Sherman, a lawyer for one of the environmental groups. “I found her to be very easygoing and one of the more reasonable attorneys to work with.”
It was an exciting case with “lots of passion on both sides,” says Medina, and the end result was a friendly settlement, in her view. Sherman generally agrees, calling the settlement a “reasonable compromise.”
Her new job promises much more excitement and passion on all sides. It may be wishful thinking to expect that all disputes will be resolved in a manner that everyone regards as friendly and reasonable, but nothing would make Medina happier.