Former labor board chair shares expertise at ILR

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Joe Schwartz
Wilma Liebman

Wilma Liebman, who has been advocating for collective bargaining rights her entire career, will now share some of her experiences as a visiting ILR School professor, teaching an ILR class on labor and employment law and a Law School seminar on contemporary challenges in labor and employment law.

Liebman has served as counsel to the Teamsters union, the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen and was deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

In 1997, Liebman was appointed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by then-president Bill Clinton. She was reappointed twice by President George W. Bush and named chair by President Barack Obama in 2009. The NLRB, a governmental agency, remedies unfair labor practices and resolves issues of union representation.

During her tenure as chair, political battles raged over labor law reform, appointments to the board, the board’s budget and the future of the board itself, with conservative critics claiming the board was partisan and anti-business.

Since leaving the board in 2011, Liebman has served as a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and George Washington University.

She discussed her decision to join academia.

Why did you decide to be a professor?

Before I left the NLRB, I was approached by Dean [Harry] Katz, and by the dean of the Illinois Labor and Employment Relations School, to see if I might be interested in visiting their respective schools.

I particularly like interacting with the students. I’m teaching a small seminar at the Law School and a large undergraduate class in ILR. That’s a challenge. I’ve never taught undergraduates before. As I’ve said many times, “Just because you know a subject, doesn’t mean you know how to teach it.”

What was it like transitioning from the NLRB to working for universities?

The experience of being in government over the last decade, with all of the heated political battles, was unique. Here, I'm free to enjoy the pure academic experience of dealing with students and interacting with colleagues.

Do you use any of the same skill set you used earlier in your career in teaching?

I suspect that I take a more practitioner, pragmatic approach to teaching than a real lifelong academic. At the end of my first teaching experience, I asked one of the students for some feedback, and he said that when practitioners teach, they tend to assume that the students know more than they actually do. That was a useful lesson.

Do you integrate your past experiences into the course material?

It comes naturally to do that. I believe I’m able to integrate the perspective of someone who has made the law as part of a bipartisan body and … has had to weigh competing arguments and views of the law.

What do you try to convey to students?

Labor law, even though embattled, is important. It is important to our democracy and to a fair economy. … Labor policy should play [a role] in restoring some measure of economic prosperity to our country. Inequality is a troubling social concern, and it’s of course related to the decline of the labor movement and the marginalization of labor law and policy from our broader policy debates.

I believe that in the world that young people are growing up in today, there is certainly hostility toward unions and government social regulation. But, perhaps even more, there’s a lack of awareness and appreciation of worker rights, the history of the labor movement and the institution of collective bargaining, and the important role they have played in our society.

Laura Carver ’14 is a writer intern for the ILR School.

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