NELP Celebrates 50 Years of Advancing Dignity and Justice at Work

Since our founding in 1969, the National Employment Law Project has fought to secure the rights of workers and unemployed people across the country.

NELP’s Founding as a Legal Clinic at Columbia Law School

NELP’s founding came at a crucial point in labor history and U.S. history generally. The civil rights movement had recently won major victories for voting rights, economic justice, and workers’ rights, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just launched his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, which aimed to explicitly connect the fight for civil rights with the power of working people. But following the assassination of both Dr. King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, and with U.S. forces deep in an increasingly unpopular war, hope was not at a high point in the final year of the 60s. Meanwhile, political conditions forced activists to change course—although the next 10 years would continue to be a time of tremendous action and protest for anti-war activists, the Black Power movement, LGBTQ rights, feminism, and more.

It was in this environment that students at Columbia Law School established a legal clinic for workers that would become the National Employment Law Project. Not long after, NELP transitioned into a legal services support and backup center, providing technical assistance and litigation support to legal services programs that assisted clients in employment, job training, and unemployment insurance issues across the country.

From its very beginnings, the connection between civil rights and workers’ rights was core to NELP’s work. When it transitioned into a legal services backup center, NELP served in a supportive role to local legal services programs but also implemented an aggressive litigation program, participating in a number of high impact civil rights and employment cases. Among others, NELP successfully represented a class of African American plaintiffs who challenged the Mississippi Welfare Department’s exclusion of Black applicants from key social work professions and other opportunities.

Coretta Scott King marches in solidarity with Mary Moultrie and other hospital workers in Charleston on Mother’s Day 1969 / Avery Research Center

NELP’s Signature Work Takes Shape

Initiatives launched in these early years—including NELP’s signature work focused on strengthening unemployment insurance coverage and benefits—became hallmarks of our program and positioned the organization at the intersection of federal and state policy change.

Later, beginning with the creation of the Employment Task Force in the early 90s, NELP formalized its role coordinating the work of national and local legal services and economic justice organizations, plus labor groups, community allies, and grassroots organizations, to fight for the rights of workers in low-wage jobs and people who are unemployed. Together with this coalition, NELP was instrumental in winning the crucial 1996 federal minimum wage increase, challenging the exploitation of workers in contingent jobs, promoting the expansion of unemployment insurance and family and medical leave, and winning crucial Labor Department protections for workers in the troubling “welfare to work” programs.

When Congress eliminated backup centers and imposed other restrictions on legal services programs in an effort to strip poor people of access to legal assistance, NELP pivoted to building a funding base among foundations, unions, and individual donors to sustain its legal and policy support for low-wage workers and lay a foundation for the future.

Expanding our Capacity in the 21st Century

In the first two decades of the 21st century, NELP continued to grow in capacity and impact, expanding our program areas while renewing our commitment to some of our most foundational work. Our work responding to natural disasters (from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Maria), the Great Recession that began in 2008, and other major crises facing communities and suddenly jobless workers, helped workers to regain their economic footing while institutionalizing unemployment modernization reforms in a number of states.

The Great Recession increased demand for NELP’s unemployed insurance and remployment assistance expertise.

In recent years, NELP has launched a new program to win work opportunities for people with records, partnering with on-the-ground organizations and directly impacted workers in this vital component of one of the biggest civil rights fights of our time. Meanwhile, as a national leader in minimum wage activism, we’ve helped to win dozens of state and local raises in partnership with the Fight for $15 campaign, one of the most successful worker campaigns in recent memory, which has already won $68 billion in raises for millions of workers across the country.

Since 2016, NELP has boosted capacity to become a hub of resistance to federal attacks on workers’ rights and benefits, while promoting a range of progressive policies at the state level. Our efforts to ensure workers are safe and healthy on the job have become another pillar of NELP’s work, as we partner with allies and policymakers to win stronger workplace safety policies at the state and local levels and fight attacks on protections at the federal level—from child labor rollbacks to proposals that would put workers in dangerous meat processing factories in even greater danger.

As labor unions and other organizations representing workers face increasing attacks, NELP has also stepped up to shine a spotlight on the vital role that worker organizing plays in our democracy, and to help advance the right of all workers to join together for dignity and justice in the workplace.

Looking Ahead

Throughout our 50-year history, NELP’s ability to constantly assess, refine, and improve our priorities and structure has allowed us to respond to significant and at times devastating shifts in our political and  economic environment, while holding true to our core values of fairness, justice, and dignity for all of America’s workers.

Through our recent organizational restructuring, which was completed in 2017, we aimed to address our tremendous growth in recent years as well as to recommit to our intention to “live our values,” including our commitment to dismantling structural racism and ending income inequality, while improving our ability to serve the vast and ever-changing nature of workplace justice in the 21st century.

As NELP Executive Director Chris Owens says, “We came to realize that in order to bring change with authenticity, we needed to be the change we were seeking. So we looked inward—and committed to change, restructuring our management and leadership teams, reorganizing how we do our work, enhancing our diversity, and defining real pathways for growth and opportunity across the organization.”

NELP Staff Members at our Rising to the Moment Reception / Soulfully Speaking Photography

Owens added: “The journey is not over, nor is our learning. We are not yet the organization we aspire to be—but we are becoming that organization, and we are better for it.”

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we will continue to showcase NELP’s history with features from our staff, board, and partners; an interactive timeline; and opportunities for our supporters and allies to engage with us celebrating our history and creating a shared vision for our future.

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Rachel Nass

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