Alumnus of the Month October 2008
Arthur Read ’76
Friends of Farm Workers, Inc., Pennsylvania (http://friendsfw.org)
Last year, Arthur Read ’76 won the Morris Dees Justice Award from the University of Alabama School of Law. Named for the legendary co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the award honored Mr. Read for “his tireless and courageous representation of farmworkers and immigrants, including his 25 years as the general counsel of Friends of Farmworkers, Inc.” The award proclamation went on to state, “His many successful negotiations and cases have changed the face of workers’ rights in Pennsylvania, and served as models throughout the nation.”
How did you become interested in practicing law?
In the early 1970s, I had acquaintances who had been involved in draft board raids as part of the anti-war movement. At the time I met them, they had been charged in criminal proceedings for attempted destruction of draft board records. I was at their sentencing proceeding, at which they were given a sentence they thought meant they would not go to jail; in reality, one of them went to jail and the other one did not. They were represented by a lawyer who literally did not understand what they were pleading to. That’s part of what made me decide that if I was going to practice law as part of a movement for social change, I was going to do it well.
What sparked your interest in labor and employment law?
Just before I started at NYU, I met a NYU law student named Amy Gladstein, who’s now a labor and employment lawyer in New York at Gladstein Reif & Meginniss. She introduced me to the National Lawyers’ Guild. Through the Guild I got involved in the legal work relating to the trials arising from the Attica prison riots, which arose out of prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and I became involved with the Guild’s labor and employment work. The Guild provided a way in which to connect my interest in social change work with my law school education.
You’re originally from Arizona, but you’ve stayed in the New York-Philadelphia area since you graduated from NYU. Why did you decide to stay?
During my last year of law school, I flew out to the Lawyers’ Guild convention in Texas and then to Arizona. There I interviewed with a legal services agency where I would have represented Navajo and Hopi people in court. My life would have been very different if I had chosen to do that. But during that trip I met the woman who is now my wife, a Lawyers’ Guild member named Cindy Rosenthal who was in her last year at Temple University Law School and who took a job in legal services in southeastern Pennsylvania. I stayed in the East because of Cindy and job opportunities to do work I wanted to do.
After graduating from NYU, I worked for three years for Eisner, Levy, Steel and Bellman, P.C., a labor and employment firm in New York where I had worked during law school. In order to be closer to Cindy I moved to Philadelphia in 1979 to take a job in southern New Jersey at Camden Regional Legal Services, Migrant Farmworker Division before coming to Friends of Farmworkers in Philadelphia in 1982. Cindy is now a senior attorney for Philadelphia Legal Assistance, and we have two sons: Andrew, who is in his third year of medical school at Northwestern University, and Jacob, who is a senior at Amherst College.
Your work with migrant workers has included some harrowing moments, including a 1979 incident in which you were seriously stabbed by the foreman of a migrant farm labor crew. But you haven’t let that—or the glacial pace of change—stop you. More recently, you won protection to organize and bargain for thousands of workers in Pennsylvania’s mushroom industry. What are you focusing on now at Friends of Farmworkers?
Despite our name, our focus has shifted over the last few years to a broader client population. We work to improve living and working conditions for indigent farmworkers, mushroom workers, food processing workers and workers from immigrant and migrant communities. This has included representation of undocumented workers, guest workers and others barred since 1996 from legal representation by Legal Services Corporation funded programs.
A major area of my work for the last several years has been the rights of temporary “guest workers,” in particular temporary, non-agricultural “H-2B workers.” Employers like the H-2B program because it allows them to obtain a workforce that is unable to remain legally in the United States if the workers do not accept the employer’s terms of employment. Guest worker programs have exploded and been inappropriately promoted as a solution to the economic need for immigrant labor. We have been amongst a limited number of advocates nationally fighting to protect the legal rights of such guestworkers. We recently have settled a nationwide class action on behalf of H-2B workers at a landscaping firm that brings the most H-2B landscaping workers into the country every year.
What advice do you have for current NYU Law students?
I wanted to be a lawyer because of the tools it would provide for being an effective advocate for social change. For those who entered law school with such goals, I would urge them not to let law school (or the practice of law) bleach away that passion for advocacy and social change. There are indeed ways to use a legal education to be an effective advocate for the poor and underprivileged, but it is essential to keep that goal at the heart of the choices you make about the kind of work you will do.