Politics to Professor

Former National Labor Relations Board chair Wilma Liebman teaching labor and employment law as an ILR visiting professor
Liebman transitions from chair of national labor board to ILR faculty
Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting ILR Professor Wilma Liebman has been an advocate for collective bargaining rights since the start of her career.

After receiving her law degree from George Washington University, Liebman served as counsel to the Teamsters union and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen. She joined the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in 1994, where she served as deputy director.

In 1997, Liebman was appointed as a member of the National Labor Relations Board by then-president Bill Clinton. She was reappointed twice by President George Bush and was named chairman of the board by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Liebman served three Senate-confirmed terms. During her tenure as chairman, political battles raged over labor law reform, appointments to the board, the board's budget, board actions and over the very future of the board itself, with conservative critics claiming the board was partisan and anti-business.

For 27 months, from January 2008 to April 2010, Liebman was one of only two board members; political gridlock over presidential nominations resulted in vacancies on the board, which has five seats. The stated purpose of the board, a governmental agency, is to remedy unfair labor practices and resolve issues of union representation.

Since leaving the board when her third term expired in August 2011, Liebman has served as a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, George Washington University, and is now at Cornell. She is teaching an ILR class on labor and employment law and a law school seminar, cross-listed with ILR, on contemporary challenges in labor and employment law.

In an interview, she discussed her decision to join the world of academia and why she chose ILR.

Why did you decide to be a professor?

Before I left the NLRB, I was approached by Dean 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 once I left the board. I first visited Illinois last fall, where I taught in their law school, as well as in their labor relations school. Now I'm doing that here. I guess I am experimenting.

I'm enjoying it. It's a lovely experience to be here. I particularly like interacting with the students. I'm teaching a small seminar at the law school and a large undergraduate class here in ILR. That's a challenge. I've never taught undergraduates before, and I've never taught such a large class before. As I've said many times, "Just because you know a subject, doesn't mean you know how to teach it."

I'm enjoying getting to know the different faculty and their areas of research. I'm also learning from the students' questions. It's amazing how many questions you've never thought to ask before. It's a learning experience for me.

Why did you come to Cornell?

It's a premier labor relations school. I knew some people here and it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down. Over the years, I have met Cornell faculty in a variety of settings. At the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, I got to know David Lipsky. I met Esta Bigler in New York City at labor law programs she has sponsored. I knew Jim Gross and Lance Compa and various people, including Dean Katz, from meetings of the Labor and Employment Relations Association – a largely academic group that I have participated in over the years. I liked all of them and was interested in the work they do.

What was it like transitioning from working for the NLRB to working for universities and colleges? What's different about the working environments? Do the two jobs have anything in common?

Although the subject matter is similar, the work experience is quite different. 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. In that sense, it's therapeutic! I don't have to worry about the potential landmines of what I say or do, or whom I can trust.

Do you use any of the same skill set you used as a labor counsel earlier in your career, or from your time at the NLRB, in teaching? What qualities do you need as a labor lawyer, and how does that affect your style as a professor?

I suspect that I take a more practitioner, pragmatic approach to teaching than a real life-long academic. I've given many lectures and speeches over the years, but that's different from teaching a course from beginning to end. 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. It's something that I must think about and work on in learning to teach.  

Being a practitioner, especially in today's climate, requires a certain kind of strategic thinking all the time. As a teacher, I struggle to figure out how to engage students – but, it's not a battle plan.

The move from Washington to Ithaca – was that difficult, or do you like Ithaca?

It's been fun. It's a nice town and it's a beautiful time to be here. I like walking around the campus – the hills make for good exercise. But, D.C. is home.

Do you integrate your past experiences into the course material?

I think so. It comes naturally to do that, and I imagine that the students are aware of that. I believe I'm able to integrate the perspective of someone who has made the law as part of a bi-partisan body and, in so doing, has had to weigh competing arguments and views of the law.

Having taught at University of Illinois and George Washington University before this, what is different about teaching Cornell and ILR students?

The Cornell-ILR experience is unique because it involves undergraduates – and undergraduates who have chosen to come to this school with its emphasis on workplace issues. The students I had at Illinois were master's degree candidates, and otherwise I have taught law students. To me, the biggest difference is teaching undergraduates, who really haven't had experience studying the law before. I really appreciate their interest, their questions and their viewpoints.  

What are the most important things you try to convey to students?

I think the most important thing I would like to convey is that labor law, even though embattled, is important. It is important to our democracy and to a fair economy. I would like for students to appreciate that and the role that labor policy should play 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.

In the first class, I had students complete a five-question anonymous survey. I shared the results with a teacher of labor law at York University in Toronto. He asked his undergraduate business students to complete the same survey. He's posted a comparison of the results on his blog. They are pretty interesting. His students were more sympathetic to unions, and significantly more concerned with the problem of inequality.

I believe that in the world that young people are growing up in today, there is certainly hostility towards 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.