Stein Center News recently spoke with The Economic Policy Institute’s Marni von Wilpert ’11 about how she uses policy to effect change beneficial to workers.
What do you do at EPI?
I am the associate labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. EPI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.
I work on EPI’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, a policy response team tracking the wage and employment policies coming out of the White House, both houses of Congress, and the courts. (The project was named after Frances Perkins, the first woman secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt). I monitor and evaluate legislation, regulations, and agency enforcement actions that affect workers’ rights, wages, and working conditions. I also work with the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) to develop worker-focused policies at the local, state, and national levels.
What do you find rewarding and challenging about affecting change through policy work?
The nice thing about policy work is that a changing policy can lift up a greater number of people, whereas direct representation is generally case-by-case. But it is often challenging to change workers’ rights policies in adverse political environments, like we have today. And a law or policy is only as good as its enforcement, so direct representation of clients to enforce their rights under the law is equally as important in terms of affecting real change in people’s lives as passing the law itself.
Did you always know that you wanted to focus on workers’ rights? If not, what series of experiences and choices led you to your current career and job?
I have always wanted to help working people, because just about everyone who is able to needs to work to support themselves or their families, or depends on someone who goes to a job everyday. I began working as a Skadden fellow in Mississippi, where I represented people living with HIV/AIDS who faced employment discrimination. One of my last clients worked at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, where I learned about the workers’ movement to form a union with United Auto Workers. When I saw all of the obstacles workers faced to join a union, I transitioned to practicing labor law, first at the National Labor Relations Board, and now through labor policy work at EPI.
Are there any victories you’ve achieved in your work that you are especially proud of?
I am especially proud of the Medical-Legal Partnership that I helped form with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, to provide comprehensive health and legal services for people living with HIV/AIDS in Mississippi. As a legal aid lawyer, serving low-income HIV-positive people, I soon realized that many of my clients’ legal and medical needs were equally important for their well-being. The partnership is still working today. I’m also very proud of a union-representation case I won in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Employees at a health care center had voted overwhelmingly to form a union, but the employer continually stalled, and unlawfully refused to recognized the union. It was really great to win their case, and lift up these workers’ voices, especially in an economy with huge amounts of poverty and inequality.
What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) facing workers and workers’ rights advocates right now? Does the current political situation present any new opportunities?
The biggest challenge I see for workers’ rights advocates, and working people, is busting through the myth that the Trump administration wants to actually help workers and the middle class. In my current position, I track and evaluate the policies coming out of the administration, and despite Trump’s campaign promises to help workers, so far his administration has delayed, rolled back, or completely repealed federal rules that protected workers’ rights to fair pay and safe workplaces. But one bright spot is the renewed sense of urgency in the workers’ rights communities. I am hopeful we will be able to help move things forward with this momentum.
What advice do you have for current Stein Scholars?
I would encourage Stein Scholars to learn more about workers’ rights advocacy. I work with an amazing community of people, both in Washington, D.C., and across the country. Workers’ rights are also integral to participation in democratic life in general. If workers feel empowered to fight for their rights to fair pay and equal treatment at work—even when their jobs may be on the line—then maybe changing the rest of the world doesn’t seem so impossible after all.