Law in the city

In an extremely ambitious work, Scott Cummings traces how lawyers and jurists mobilized to make Los Angeles a more inclusive city. His analysis allows him to question the effectiveness of the repertoire of legal action in social struggles.

Recent news, particularly the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court, brought to the center of attention the particularities of the judicial institutions of this country, and in particular the forms of complex articulation between state law and federal law which, seen from France, are often unknown or poorly understood. Although its subject is much broader, Scott Cummings' latest book contributes to deepening our knowledge of these mechanisms, and in a much more positive way than recent news allows. Indeed, in An equal place. Lawyers in the struggle for Los Angeles, Scott Cummings is interested in the mobilizations which have made it possible to profoundly transform the law for the benefit of minoritized and dominated groups, and this on a scale to which little attention is often paid, in this case that of the city and more specifically of the urban area of ​​Los Angeles. By focusing on local mobilizations whose outlet, at least initially, was neither state nor national, but much more localized even if it is obviously a particularly large and economically important urban area, S. Cummings shifts approaches that are too often focused either on the national level or on that of the company or branch monograph (regarding labor conflicts). It thus makes it possible to nuance and complicate reflection on the link between law and social progress, using an in-depth empirical investigation rich in portraits and examples.

Building a fairer city through law

This investigation is in line with the work of the current Law and SocietyEdit of which Scott Cummings is an important representative, by focusing on the role of law in the transformations of the economic and social world, paying attention to forms of resistance which can rely on legal tools. In line with his older work on the public interest lawyering a difficult term to translate which designates jurists defending the interests of the most disadvantaged, often in conjunction with associations emphasizing social struggles which are based at least in part on the law, in various areas.

The book thus traces, in very detail, five mobilizations that took place in the metropolis of Los Angeles in the years 1990-2000, relating respectively to working conditions in the textile industry (fight against sweatshops); to the arrests prohibiting undocumented workers from setting up on street corners to ask for work; improving the working conditions of retail and hotel employees in sectors undergoing gentrification under the action of developers; against the installation of Walmart stores which risk harming small local businesses; and to transform the status of truck drivers working in the Port of Los Angeles and encourage their unionization.

through this diversity of cases, in terms of economic sector, workforce (mostly recent immigrants in the first two cases), or investment by unions (rather in the last three), Scott Cummings highlights the emergence through the struggles of a local labor law which, through these victorious mobilizations, makes the city a progressive example in the United States. These mobilizations have the particular characteristics of relying on the existence of local, and not national, regulations, and of placing the question of racial justice at the heart of organizational work.

Lawyers serving legality

In all these struggles, a salient fact to which Scott Cummings pays particular attention concerns the place of lawyers or salaried lawyers in organizations in these mobilizations transforming the city through local campaigns, concerning working conditions but also, to varying degrees, public and commercial spaces. The author describes in particular through interviews with them and members of the organizations how these jurists, often barely out of university, will articulate their skills with the expectations and demands of the movements, sometimes by trial and error, but most often by favoring horizontality in the determination of the objectives and issues of the struggle. As part of what he calls a comparative institutional approach, he situates the handling of the law, often a contentious dimension, within other forms of activism such as boycotts, press campaigns, but also other uses of the law, particularly when it comes to proposing legal reforms capable of perpetuating the situation acquired in the struggle.

In doing so, the author emphasizes points more or less explored so far, focusing on dimensions such as the relationships between legal activists and non-lawyers.; the interactions between the legal sphere, the political arena and forms of protest; the question of scale games within each mobilization; constant reassessments relating in particular to the time scales in which the action takes place and the assessment of its success (or failure); finally the varied modalities by which jurists can play a role in mobilizations.

Is the legal action repertoire really effective??

This approach, never simplistic and concerned with thinking about interrelations, which results in a text that is almost too dense (the book including appendices is more than 650 very tight pages), produces results that are also nuanced and emphasize the complementarity between the forms of action, legal and non-legal, in the courts and outside, as well as on the importance of forms of coordination between actors, jurists appearing no more likely than others to take the advantage in the direction of the movement, which they have sometimes been criticized for, or in any case be put up for debate.

Scott Cummings comes to conclusions which are neither radical criticism nor nonsense regarding the powers of law: he underlines how, in a context of legalization of economic and labor relations, the army of law is more necessary than ever; it tends to show its potential, particularly when it is articulated in a thoughtful manner with other forms of mobilization; it also underlines its limits, particularly when the scale games specific to the law can call into question local achievements, as illustrated by an intervention by the Supreme Court in the fight relating to truck drivers working in connection with the port of Los Angeles.

To what extent can this book matter to us?? It covers a period that has already passed in the United States before Donald Trump, and before the COVID since which inequalities have increased further. It also concerns a country, the United States, whose labor law, whether it concerns unionization arrangements or forms of employment contract, is very far from the French case. However, beyond the relevance of these issues as American unions see their presence extending into hitherto impregnable bastions (Starbucks, Amazon, etc.), other important lessons can be drawn from the work.

First of all, he invites us to pay attention to the games of scale in the relationships between law, work and mobilization, by integrating them into broader mobilizations including press campaigns, forms of public awareness, lobbying of public authorities, etc. He also contributes, with others, to evaluating different levels – moving beyond the simple dichotomy between victory and failure to the political significance of a mobilization, including with regard to the court decisions obtained. Finally, he suggests that the role of jurists is both more crucial than ever, in an extremely legalized environment, and still capable of bringing about changes through the different levers that the place of law, precisely, confers.