By Susan Gluss
Catherine Fisk ‘86, a fervent advocate for workers’ rights with a passion for labor law reform and legal history, is Berkeley Law’s newest faculty member. She comes with a slew of credentials: distinguished professor, award-winning author of five books, litigator, judicial clerk, and more.
For Fisk, coming to Berkeley is like coming home. Her mother and grandfather studied at the school, and her father is a triple Cal grad with an undergrad degree, a J.D. in 1952, and a Ph.D. When Fisk decided to study law, she knew there was only one place to go.
“My whole family history is Berkeley,” she said. “I turned down Harvard and Yale and Stanford to come to here. I was thrilled. I love the university and what it stands for.”
The campus’s long tradition of activism was another lure. As a student, Fisk and her peers organized the first Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, and they protested the tenure denial of “two especially fabulous women professors, both of whom are now emerita.”
“You have to mobilize student, staff, or faculty activism and use that energy to make a better place,” she said.
That enthusiasm infuses her teaching. A popular professor, Fisk exudes an “infectious passion” in the classroom, say students. She’s taught at Duke, USC, and Loyola law schools; and she was a founding faculty member at UC Irvine Law School, along with her husband and frequent collaborator, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.
“One reason I came back as a faculty member is because of Berkeley’s longstanding commitment to scholarly rigor that’s also policy driven to advance the cause of social justice,” she said. “Labor law, to me, offers the chance to use a really complicated and interesting body of law for the cause of workplace justice and greater economic equality.”
A prolific writer, Fisk has won accolades for her articles on unionized writers in Hollywood, labor protests, democracy in the workplace, the legal profession, and more. Her work is driven by “social problems that can be addressed by changes in the law,” she said.
Fisk is now writing a new book about the history of labor protest and labor lawyers. Her focus: picketing and boycotts in the mid-20th century. At that time, the courts and Congress were steadily eroding a union’s right to protest. In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court was expanding protections for civil rights demonstrators.
That disparity intrigued and troubled Fisk.
“Today, if a labor organization stands outside a store with signs urging employees not to work because of bad conditions in the supply chain, the union is violating the federal secondary boycott laws,” she said. “But if it’s a civil rights organization, or a church group, or Students Against Sweatshops, they have a First Amendment right to stand out there and protest.”
Fisk called that “completely irreconcilable.”
Boalties are book lovers, and Fisk is no exception. Books on her nightstand:
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Autumn, by Ali Smith
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, by Francis Spufford
Steve Viscelli’s The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “A fantastic account of how long haul trucking went from being a high-paying job in the mid-twentieth century to sweatshops on wheels today.”
Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right; Jennifer Sherman’s Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America; and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
“Part of my work is about pointing out these inconsistencies and arguing that the law respecting labor picketing is no longer tenable in light of the Supreme Court’s recent First Amendment cases. And part of it is explaining how labor and civil rights lawyers and their clients navigated the challenges they faced.”
A fresh look at unions
To counter right-to-work laws that cripple organized labor, Fisk advocates for members-only unions: If a union can’t sign up a majority of workers, at least those who do join could benefit from its negotiating power. It’s a win-win for workers’ rights.
Of all the labor groups she’s studied, police unions may be the most intransigent. They are loath to talk reform, even when officers are under fire for excessive force. Critics of police unions “tend to want to abolish them or advocate reforms without trying to get the union on board,” said Fisk.
But that strategy is doomed to fail.
“Police unions are perceived as part of the problem, and for good reason,” she said. So, she studied how police unions thwart reforms over time and then proposed changing the law “to empower the minority within the unions—whether numerical or racial—who believe in greater accountability and transparency.”
“We’re never going to effectively address police violence without understanding why police unions have resisted certain kinds of reforms, and how we can change that narrative,” said Fisk, who recently co-authored an article on police unions with now-UCI Law Dean Song Richardson.
A legacy to uphold
Fisk now holds the Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong faculty chair, previously held by Fisk’s longtime mentor, Herma Hill Kay—a Berkeley Law dean and beloved professor who died earlier this year. Armstrong, the first full-time female law professor in the U.S., was one of the architects of social security.
It’s the third chair Fisk has held as a law professor, but “the most meaningful.” When she got news of the honor, “I just started to weep, right at that moment,” she said.
“The idea that I have the chair that Herma Hill Kay had makes me want to live up to it. I’m not sure I can, but I’ll try. Thanks to people like Armstrong and Kay, I didn’t have to be a path breaker,” she added. “Other people had paved the way and fought the hard fights, and I’ve been a beneficiary of that work.”