Cornell University

International Programs

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Faculty Profile

Lance Compa, Senior Lecturer, International & Comparative Labor

Lance Compa Lance Compa’s interest in comparative and international labor law, the main area of his teaching and research at the ILR School, began taking shape in study abroad programs in college and law school. His junior year abroad in Paris, France in 1967-68 coincided with a period of student activism and alliance with the French labor movement. Witnessing this movement and its wide ranging repercussions generated a deep interest in labor movements as agents of social change, especially through alliance with other elements of civil society.

Lance used Yale Law School’s “intensive semester” program to spend nine months in Chile in 1972-73 studying labor law reform under then-president Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government. Lance became immersed in this important experiment in democratic socialism, with particular interest in the role of trade unions in a developing country. He wrote a contemporaneous essay on his experience there ( and followed up with his law school research paper “Labor Law and the Via Legal” (

A military coup in late 1973 crushed the democratically-elected government and brutally repressed the labor movement. Several trade unionists whom Lance met in the course of his research were killed. Lance maintained an abiding interest in Chile and decided that supporting workers and trade unions in Latin America and other developing countries would be an important part of his future work, as reflected in his article "Unions in Chile: Laboring for Unity" (

Working with Unions

On graduating from Yale, Lance opted for work as a union organizer instead of taking the conventional path toward corporate law. He joined the staff of the United Electrical Workers union (UE). For many years, he worked as a UE organizer and negotiator in New England and in the South, as well as taking assignments in important campaigns in other parts of the country. He wrote about the union organizing experience contemporaneously in "Back to Basics for the Labor Movement" (, and in retrospect in “More Thoughts on the Worker-Student Alliance” (

Lance’s work with the UE provided a unique perspective on trade and workers’ rights. The union was losing members in the 1970s and 1980s due to the increasing number of foreign imports. However, at the same time it gained members thanks to rising exports of products made in the United States by companies like General Electric.

Along with others of his “60s generation” who entered the labor movement, Lance became active in promoting a trade policy supportive of workers’ rights without being against trade. These advocates created a “labor rights movement” of U.S. trade unionists and human rights, civil rights, religious consumer and other social movement activists seeking a labor rights and human rights foundation for trade policy. Lance described these efforts in "Faces of Global Competition: Unions, Protectionism and Human Rights" (

In the 80’s Lance helped trade unions in Guatemala, Chile, Malaysia, Indonesia and other developing countries file complaints under U.S. trade laws for violations of workers’ rights in those countries. He also began doing more research and writing on labor rights, human rights, and international trade. He began teaching courses on this topic in 1990, when he returned to Yale Law School as a Visiting Lecturer, where he also taught U.S. labor law. He articulated some of his views at the time in “And the Twain Shall Meet? A North-South Controversy Over Labor Rights and Trade” (

International Agency Work

In 1995 then-U.S. Labor secretary Robert Reich appointed Lance as the top U.S. appointee to the new NAFTA labor commission, where he directed labor law and economic research. He served in this position for two years, and has maintained a keen interest in NAFTA labor affairs, including wide-ranging publication on related topics, such as “NAFTA’s Labor Side Agreement and International Labor Solidarity” (

Coming to Cornell

Lance joined the Cornell faculty as a Senior Lecturer in 1997. In the International and Comparative Labor department he has taught courses on international labor law, now using his co-authored textbook (, and on corporate social responsibility ( He also is affiliated with the Labor Relations, Law and History department where he has taught course on U.S. labor law, labor law and immigrant workers, employee benefits, and labor law covering the railroad and airline industries.

Lance continues to work closely with trade unions and human rights organizations as well as consulting to the International Labor Organization and other bodies that draw on his expertise on labor law and international labor rights. For example, in 2003 and 2004 he researched and wrote reports on workers’ rights in Mexico, Sri Lanka, and China for the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center (;;

In 2010, Lance was chosen by Nike, the Worker Rights Consortium, United Students against Sweatshops, and the Solidarity Center to oversee $1.4 million in severance payments to workers in Honduras when a Nike subcontractor failed to fulfill legal requirements for severance pay in the sudden closure of two factories. In 2011, Russell Athletic Corp., the WRC and USAS, and the Honduran CGT trade union chose Lance to serve as Ombudsman for their groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement that resolved another plant closure with an agreement to re-open the factory, recognize the trade union, and reach a labor contract.

Lance has presented seminars and workshops on international labor standards and labor chapters in trade agreements to staff of the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development (AID), and to government officials, labor lawyers, labor court judges, NGO activists, trade unionists, business leaders and other stakeholders in Cambodia, Vietnam, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and other developing countries. He has also helped many unions and NGOs craft complaints to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association under ILO Conventions 87 and 98, under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, under the NAFTA labor agreement, and other international labor rights instruments.

Lance's recent work has also focused on workers’ rights in the United States under international human rights standards, with reports published by Human Rights Watch on workers organizing rights in the United States (, on workers rights in the U.S. meatpacking industry (, and on violations of workers’ rights by European multinational corporations in the United States ( He has engaged in wide-ranging debates about the relevance of human rights standards in U.S. labor discourse ( and

Lance believes that having a theoretical and research capacity allows more knowledge and information to be generated that can be used in real life cases of labor violations. At the same time, from a practitioner perspective, Lance says he stays close to grass-roots labor movements and can then direct his research towards supporting these efforts. He continues to study and write about relations between trade unions and other civil society organizations (

Internationalizing the ILR School

Labor law and its regulation of collective bargaining and employee relations is key to social justice and to the development of a nation’s economy and its place in today’s globalized world. Lance commented on these issues as a General Reporter at the 2006 world congress of the International Society for Labor and Social Security Law (

As the ILR School embarks on its mission to internationalize the school, Lance feels that it is important for the school to explore labor relations in the international arena while maintaining the school’s longstanding strength in U.S. workplace relations. The goal is to make the ILR School equally strong on labor affairs nationally and internationally.

Making a Difference

Lance believes that his family history is an important influence on his career choices. His grandparents came to the United States as immigrants in the early 20th century and played an active part in the union movement in the 1930’s. Thanks to his grandparents’ efforts, his parents were able to enter the middle class and provide the security for him to get a top-notch university education. He feels that just as his grandparents and parents did their part to make the United States a better place for his generation, now it is his turn to contribute toward social justice on a global scale, making the world a better place for his own children and his students in their generation.

- Lance Compa, Senior Lecturer, International & Comparative Labor

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