Worker Protections, Government Oversight and the Role of Private Attorneys

I’m in the midst of preparing a first draft of Kumin Sommers’ human resources policy manual, and I’m struck – if not especially surprised – by the nexus between employer personnel policies and our firm’s work advocating on behalf of workers.

Let’s briefly step back a bit though and put a few things into context…

Since the late 19th century, government regulation – often following intense lobbying by unions – slowly created more and more protections for workers. The United States Department of Labor was created in 1888, originally as a bureau within the Interior Department, and in 1913 becoming a separate cabinet-level department. DOL monitors wages, working hours, worker safety, unemployment benefits, and other workplace issues.

Not long after the creation of the DOL in the United States, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was formed to develop and monitor labor standards around the world. Now headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the ILO was later subsumed into the United Nations, and in 1969 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts on behalf of workers around the world.

Over the course of this time, the work-day became shorter, the work-week became shorter, the weekend was born, and the workplace became safer. Both judicially and legislatively, laws about sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, overtime pay, and a host of other worker protections gradually came into existence on the federal and state levels.

Why the need for private law firms then?

For one, laws can be enacted, but companies might still break those laws. Secondly, local, state and federal governments do not dedicate enough resources to monitoring and regulation. Lastly, as a common law society in which most laws are fleshed out and clarified through judicial decisions, both public interest and private practice attorneys help to drive that system of clarification.

Private attorneys thus act as an enforcement mechanism when companies fail to live up to their legal obligations and when government oversight fails to adequately step up to the plate.