Barbara Zack Quindel on east coast sarcasm, the Wisconsin idea, and the last five years for Wisconsin labor
Published in 2015 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on November 10, 2015
Updated on January 26, 2021
Q: As a labor lawyer, how have the last five years in Wisconsin under Gov. Walker felt to you?
A: I would say pretty much everything that has gone on is in direct opposition to the kind of work we’ve done to defend and expand the rights of working people—employees—in all aspects of their work life.
Q: I live outside the state but I’ve certainly read about some of the battles: Act 10, the “right-to-work” measure …
A: I think people outside the state are a bit baffled, given Wisconsin’s history as a leader in both protective labor legislation and education.
Q: And people inside the state?
A: I think people inside the state are very divided. One of the strategies, very clearly, [was] to divide and conquer. So when Act 10 passed, the appeal from the governor and others was, “Hey, look, private-sector workers, you haven’t been doing too well, you’ve been taking concessions; it’s time for the public-sector workers to do that.” And indeed, private-sector workers had been taking concessions to try to save jobs, so there was an ability to split those groups. At the same time, the governor promised he would not enact “right-to-work” legislation. He wasn’t looking to enact legislation that would remove union security for private workers as he had for public workers. Then we see what happens.
It’s no surprise that the first attacks started on unions. They’ve not only improved the standard of living for the workers they directly represent but have had tremendous influence in raising standards for all people who work for a living. We’re talking about having a job where you have basic things: decent health insurance, retirement security with an actual pension, a wage that hopefully is some measure of the work you do. These are basic things that have allowed people to move into the middle class.
[But] I take a long view, and while you may be able to beat people back for a period, there’s an impulse there. We’ve seen new forms of activities start that I think are harbingers of a new era. The fight for $15 an hour. When that first started, people thought, “Oh this is pie in the sky.” But then, lo and behold, you know, you’ve got McDonald’s, you’ve got Wal-Mart, you’ve got Aetna, all starting to raise their minimum wage.
The country is changing, and new forms of collective action are likely to be part of our future, because, representing individual employees, I can certainly see the powerlessness. I have people come in all the time. A guy last week comes in to see me. He’s been terminated because he was accused of damaging some piece of equipment. He has evidence that that never happened and he goes and presents it to the employer and the employer says, “Sorry, you’re gone.” Worked there 10 years. He’s gone. And he has no effective recourse because he is an individual; he doesn’t have a contract. He’s at-will.
I do this over and over again. “Isn’t it my democratic right to at least confront people and present evidence and show that I didn’t do what you say I did? Or that I shouldn’t have been the one you terminated in order for your friend to come and work here?” I have to tell them that without a union, without a contract, “No, you don’t have any legal protection.” It’s shocking to people.
Q: Although at-will termination isn’t new.
A: I’m not saying the law has changed there. I’m just saying that a decline in unions means fewer people having the kinds of protection that comes with standing together.
Q: What specific battles have you been fighting?
A: I was part of the team of attorneys that challenged Act 10 in federal court, and raised equal protection and First Amendment claims. We did not succeed, but it was a very important battle to fight. We were able to really expose the political nature of the law.
Since Act 10, a lot of what I’m doing is working with unions and navigating this new world where, really, we are in a state now that is not different from places like Virginia, and other states in the South. We have been looking to those states to see how their unions have been able to function and we’ve found examples. We’re pioneering examples here.
Q: How did your firm, Hawks Quindel, come together?
A: It’s a merger of the firm I grew up in, which was Perry Shapiro and Tim Hawks’ firm. We were doing the same kinds of work, so it made sense to come together. We merged in 2005.
Q: Overall, how did you get into this racket—representing unions and employees—particularly since there seems to be so much more money on the other side of it?
A: You don’t go into our work for the money, that’s for sure. I started out in teaching. I was a social studies teacher.
Q: When was this?
A: 1971. But I couldn’t find a job at the time. Social studies in particular was heavily dominated by men, and there were few openings. So I went to law school.
Q: You were part of that first small wave of women who began to move into more male-dominated professions such as the law.
A: I was and I wasn’t. I went to Northeastern [University in Boston], which has a terrific program of co-op education—so after the first year, every quarter you’re actually out on a job full time. I started there in 1973, and what was unusual was that my class was 50 percent women. So I had a different law school experience in that I wasn’t isolated as a woman.
Q: Fifty percent women in ’73? How did that happen?
A: The school attracted a number of people that had a social justice interest, a public policy interest, and the school is still well-known for it. It has produced far more union-labor lawyers than probably any other law school in the country. So there was some sense, I think, for women who were engaged in one movement or another, that this might be a friendly environment.
Q: Were you surprised? Did you look around the class and go, “Wow”?
A: I don’t know if I was as surprised then as when I started [practicing law]—realizing what it was like at other law schools. Particularly as a litigator, I was still very much in the minority. I remember a judge after my first jury trial, saying, “Oh, you have a pretty good voice for a woman there.” And I thought, “Oh, you think? How about for a lawyer?”
Q: Did you have trouble finding work initially?
A: Well, that was interesting, too. Because of Northeastern’s program, I wound up working with another attorney in Boston for two of my four quarters of co-op. And he was involved with tenants who were organizing major projects and suing the government on rent increases. He had a very informal law practice and was very smart.
Q: His name?
A: Mark Stern. Toward the end of that time, I started to get involved in labor union representation. But it was not until 1979, when I married a Milwaukee boy and moved to Milwaukee, that I wound up in the firm that is really the forerunner of this firm, with a wonderful mentor and good friend, Richard Perry. Richard was representing the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and other teachers unions, and I came on board and learned a lot from him.
Q: What did you learn?
A: It didn’t matter how small the issue was, he just put everything into it. He used to say, “You have to be careful when you win a procedural ruling from an arbitrator; it may mean you’re not going to win the case.” It became a joke [with us]: “Uh oh, you just won that procedural ruling.” He was also terrific at explaining concepts. So when you do arbitrations, you generally give an opening statement. That’s really an opportunity to educate.
As I’ve now gotten to be among the senior people in my firm, what I value most about Richard is how much he shared his substantive knowledge, his wisdom. He didn’t see this as a competitive endeavor. Anything that could provide the attorneys who were working with him with a way of expanding our practice and becoming more knowledgeable, that’s how he wanted it to be. For many years after he retired, I would still call on him. We always joked that at some point we could just start channeling Richard and we’d have the answer we wanted. He was a great mentor.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: New Jersey. Born in Newark and pretty much raised in Westfield.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My dad was trained as a lawyer but really worked for the Hess Corporation, then went into a family painting-contracting business—a union painting-contracting business. [Laughs] My mom had five kids. She was originally an occupational therapist and later became certified as a teacher, then a museum educator, and ultimately opened a children’s bookstore at the age of 70.
Q: What was it called?
A: Storytime on Elm.
Q: Is it still there?
A: No. The mega-bookstores got to her.
Q: Was there a culture clash when you first came to the Midwest?
A: A bit. I think there can be a sarcastic demeanor to people who come from the East Coast. I think there’s a much friendlier and less competitive edge [here]. I hate to make this generalization, but I like the Midwest style in that regard. Milwaukee is a great city to live in. We raised our kids here, and amazingly they are now back in Milwaukee—after one having spent 12 years in California.
Q: You mentioned you came out of various ’60s movements. Which ones were you involved in?
A: The anti-war movement, more than anything else. I did go to the University of Wisconsin, ’66 to ’70, so every year brought a new social movement. One of the most significant was teaching assistants organizing and striking during my junior or senior year. I had to deal with issues of picket lines and why they were organizing. Then fast forward to the last 10 years: Tim Hawks represented teaching assistants as part of the American Federation of Teachers, AFT-Wisconsin. So, full circle.
Q: How do you and Tim work together? Do you discuss things?
A: We discuss things all the time and work together on cases. I feel so lucky to have had colleagues throughout my career who see themselves as working as a team. I just like doing those projects where, you know, you’ve got a group of people who are smart and curious, you’ve got tons of challenges, tons of problems to solve, and you do it together. I think you get a better result that way. And it sure is a lot more fun.
Q: Do you have an example of this kind of teamwork?
A: In 1995, I was appointed to monitor a Teamster internal election as part of a consent decree.
I had to make a very tough call in that assignment: whether I was going to overturn the election that I had just overseen because we had discovered significant violations in terms of monetary contributions. I had to both investigate and write a decision, and I had a team of people, three other lawyers, who I worked with very closely. That process of being able to write drafts and bounce them off each other, and try to map out a strategy … Ultimately, I was the decider, right? I was the court-appointed officer. But having people in the trenches was absolutely critical.
Q: What did you wind up deciding?
A: I overturned the election and ordered a new election.
Q: What was the reaction?
A: This was James Hoffa running against Ron Carey, so the Hoffa name brought quite a bit of publicity. Also, it was a highly contentious and public fight in which I was the referee. I was completing my investigation in the midst of thousands of teamsters going on strike. I made the decision that I would not announce in the middle of that strike. I was appointed to represent the members of this union, and [announcing], I believed, would have undermined the members and their ability to carry out that strike. I was excoriated for that by The Wall Street Journal. I kind of wear it as a badge of pride.
Q: Back to the last five years: What’s the worst of it from your perspective?
A: That we are driving people out of occupations that are absolutely necessary to our children’s future. We hear all kinds of stories now that people don’t want to go into teaching. They don’t feel like it’s respected, they’re not going to be able to make a family-supporting wage, there’s no wage growth in it. I fear that that’s going to be a hard thing to turn around. We’re going to be at a point where we don’t have an adequate pool. I mean, there’s a myth out there that anybody can teach. That’s crazy. This is a profession that requires constant professional development.
There’s something called “the Wisconsin idea,” which has been around since the late 1800s. The Wisconsin idea is the notion that the university serves the state beyond the walls of the university, and it sifts and winnows for the truth. I really, really fear that we are going to lose [that]. People talk about politics as ideologies, and they debate things, but they don’t really think, “How is this going to affect my life and my kid’s life and my grandkid’s life?” I want Wisconsin to be the great state that it has been, but I really fear we may be in a period where it’s going to be hard to rebuild.
This interview has been edited and condensed.