Reprinted with permission from the Summer #2 2020 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The Prairie Progressive is funded entirely by reader subscription, available primarily in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
An Immigrant in My Own Country
A Guest Post by Nate Willems
I once represented a blue-collar white woman in her fifties on an employment matter and a workers’ compensation claim. After a couple of years of litigation, I managed to win one case and settle another.
She received three different cash settlements or awards and was offered back her job. It seems whatever success I had in achieving justice for this client must have left me a little smug, or perhaps I felt empowered to pointedly suggest what she should do.
My client had moved on to a new job in Muscatine, a community which has seen significant growth in its Latino population. Within the course of conversation one day talking about her job and Muscatine, she commented, “Yeah, I really just go to work and go home. I don’t like to stay around in Muscatine. You know, I just don’t like to feel like an immigrant in my own country.” I said nothing at the time to try to steer her back to issues which are directly impacting her life.
When my representation concluded, I said to my client, “Look, I need you to understand one thing clearly. The laws that we have been able to utilize to obtain these results for you only exist because of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party of Iowa is actively seeking to limit or take away your rights to compensation, your job and treatment for your work injury.”
“Oh, okay.” She nodded as she replied. And that was it. Do I believe she took her lawyer’s parting words to heart and carries them with her as she contemplates how to vote this year or any year? Absolutely not.
The goal of the modern Republican Party of Iowa is to boil down the thirty seconds of political conventional wisdom white blue collar Iowans keep with them to this: “Well, I am not black. I am not brown. I am not gay. I am not a feminist. I am not an environmentalist. I guess I must be a Republican.”
Having represented hundreds of white working-class individuals and thousands of white union members, I know their personal histories. I know life has not been easy for my clients. I see the tough jobs they work, the physical pain their bodies endure, the loss of income and, no matter what I can do to help, the very uncertain future which awaits. Whenever anyone comes to some attention for fighting the injustice in their life – be it a teacher or Black Lives Matter protestor – I can hear the internal reaction of clients thinking, “huh, my life is no picnic either.” Seat-of-the-pants comparative analysis of the injustices we face does not do much good for anyone. Thinking “they don’t have it so bad” eventually leads to something significantly worse: “they’re not like me.”
What about the injustices that you think should truly motivate my client? Too often they are boring, complicated, or just unknown. Listening to Mitch McConnell is boring. Understanding how the shoulder is now a scheduled member injury instead of a whole body injury and how that negatively impacts the value of your workers’ compensation claim is complicated. And if you work for a private employer, good luck on finding out how much money your bosses make. What’s more – when injustices that I can see, understand, and care about do come to the surface, how long do they stay there?
If you thought this was all leading to some positive solution or reason for optimism, I apologize. I do not have it. I can tell you that we must meet people where they are; we must translate the issue into the listener’s reality. And as employers chew up their workers’ bodies with the constant focus on today’s output and nothing else, I think there is a good chance I’ll get another opportunity to make my case that she has more in common with Latino workers in Muscatine than the insurance company adjuster… when she is back in my office after her next work injury.
—Nate Willems is a labor and workers’ compensation lawyer who has three daughters. He is fearless.