Stein Center News caught up with Tyler Crawford ’19 to learn more about the ways that workers and unions inspire him in his quest to be a public interest labor lawyer.
What sparked your interest in labor unions?
From 2011 to 2012, I was very involved with the Occupy Movement in Florida. Occupy gave me a sense of what democracy really looks like. It is participatory, unpredictable, and a part of our everyday lives. After Occupy, I wanted to find institutions that integrate politics into our day-to-day interactions, and came across the labor movement. While still in Florida, I realized that people interact with union workers all the time, such as with postal and sanitation workers. The labor movement is integrated into the fabric of our day-to-day life. Because of this, it has a lot of potential to open up spaces in our communities where everyday people can be leaders.
What made you decide to go to law school?
In 2012, I came to New York City for a conference and Stein graduate Dan Gross ’07 was speaking about Brandworkers, the workers’ rights organization he founded after he graduated from Fordham Law. It was then that I began to realize that it’s possible to use a legal education to do this work, so I decided to move from Florida to NYC and to go to law school. After moving here, I worked in the bike industry for four years. I was a mechanic, opened some shops with different companies, and managed a shop in the East Village. In my free time, I expanded my connections to unions and community organizations, studying at the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies, as well as interning at Make the Road NY, which builds the power of Latino/a and working class communities.
Why did you enroll at Fordham?
I chose to come to Fordham in order to work with its well-respected labor law and community economic development faculty members, such as Jennifer Gordon and Brian Glick. Also, Fordham has a history and a reputation as a place that supports students who want to use law school as a platform to continue their work in community organizing and activism.
What is Workers’ Rights Advocates?
WRA is a workers’ rights student group at Fordham Law. Our most recent event was a panel on the direction of the labor movement under Trump and beyond, with leaders from the Communication Workers of America Verizon strike, the New York Taxi Workers JFK airport strike, and the Yemeni Bodega strike. We wanted to provide an educational experience and also make connections between groups that use radically different approaches to grassroots organizing. For the labor movement to be strong again, we need to think expansively about coalitions and strategy.
Next year, WRA plans to organize know-your-rights trainings for law students getting ready to go into the legal profession. We want to empower law students by educating them about their rights as workers. It’s important for lawyers beginning their career to know they have a right to organize, as well as work in environments free from discrimination.
What is the Bicycle Worker Advocacy Project?
The most important aspect of the Bicycle Worker Advocacy Project is that it is led entirely by workers in the bike industry. BWAP is a democratic and “horizontal” worker organization, which seeks to create leadership opportunities for all workers in the bike industry. As a former bike mechanic of seven years and now a law student, my role in BWAP is to lend a hand as the group establishes itself and generally be supportive in any way that is helpful. BWAP has brought together workers of all different specializations and interests—workers who want to end sexism and racism, mechanics who want to open shops, or other workers who want to organize in support of marginalized communities. The philosophy behind BWAP is that we all have something to contribute and ways to support each other. It has been an incredibly inspiring experience, and I’m grateful to be involved.
Do law students have a role to play too?
Law students and professionals have a big role to play in assisting BWAP. The organization and its members have already presented challenging legal questions concerning labor and employment law, organizational law, and other areas. My hope is that WRA and BWAP will work together. WRA can help BWAP as it grows, and BWAP can act as an opportunity for law students hoping to experience legal work centered on grassroots organizing.
How does the Stein Scholars Program fit into all of this?
The Stein Scholars Program gives me a network of people—alumni, students, and faculty—all of whom embrace public interest work. The Stein alumni network and Stein faculty have been extremely supportive as I develop my career, while I also think creatively about my legal education. While many law schools have amazing public interest programs, the Stein Scholars Program feels like a protected space dedicated to students who want to use the law for the benefit of the community and everyday people.
Is the Trump administration having an impact on your work?
In political terms, my work is completely opposed to the policies of the Trump administration. The challenges are immense. But on a pragmatic level, I feel that Trump’s rise to the presidency has changed politics. We live in a chaotic time, but at the same time, spaces are opening for new strategies and new activists.
Can you tell us a little about your research and approach to lawyering?
This year, I worked as a research assistant for Professors Gordon and Glick, drafting a memo on living wage coalitions and also helping write an essay on rebellious lawyering. I hope my research and work will build upon the tradition of Maurice Sugar (1891–1974). Sugar was an early member of the National Lawyers Guild and also United Auto Workers general counsel from 1937 to 1946. As general counsel at UAW, Sugar protected the union from its adversaries while also making sure its internal disputes were handled fairly. Lawyers like Sugar can protect union democracy while also protecting democracy by defending unions.