Relaunching an Economic Rights Task Force

Stephen Bingham

The National Lawyers Guild has nearly twenty committees and task forces but none that deals with many of the economic justice issues confronting legal aid and other public interest law firms: welfare benefits, family law for survivors of domestic violence, health law, consumer law, education law, youth and elder law, to name a few. Only two committees, the Disability Rights Committee and the Labor and Employment Committees do work that forms the core of legal services work.

In the early 1980’s, a handful of people, including legendary legal aid lawyer Evelyn Frank and Art Heitzer, began the Guild’s Economic Rights Task Force. As part of ERTF’s early work in 1984, ERTF took on Gov. Pete Wilson and his welfare-bashing initiative, Proposition 41, which would have cut welfare benefits nearly in half. The Guild became an active member of Campaign for a Fair Share, a state-wide grassroots organization composed mainly of housing and homeless advocacy group and welfare recipients. Due to great community organizing around the State, Prop 41 was defeated by a 3-1 margin.

After a hiatus of several years, ERTF was reborn at the Seattle Convention in 1988. As part of its work then, Erica Ettelson started and directed the Welfare Fraud Education Project. In 1992, ERTF organized a workshop at the national convention on National Fights Against Welfare Cuts and a major panel on health care. This effort led the Guild to prioritize economic justice work for the year 1992. That year the local Chapter honored Legal Services and those working in legal services programs at the annual dinner, with a special mention to Evelyn Frank. Also that year, the Guild Practitioner did a special issue on Economic Rights (Vol. 49, No. 4, fall 1992) with articles by famed legal aid lawyer Martha Davis on State welfare programs’ wars on women and other articles on homeless advocacy and California Prop 167 (Tax the Rich). Paul Gattone, Guild Practitioner Editor for that issue, noted that the resurgence of ERTF came at a critical period, after twelve disastrous years for poor people.

Unfortunately, what Paul wrote in 1992 could be written today, with barely a change in a comma. While Guild members have often done great work in the area of economic justice, there remains a crying need for a Guild committee where such folks can come together. Having a home in ERTF would enrich the politics of those working on economic justice issues and provide a forum for sharing cutting edge strategies that often are shunned by all-too-often timid legal aid programs.

I helped reactivate ERTF in 1988 and again in 2008 but was unable to devote enough time and draw in enough legal services folks to keep it going. Can we try again? I know there’s interest out there. ERTF just needs to be jump-started. Let me know if you’d like to be part of such an effort. My email is smbingham@earthlink.net.