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Profiles in Justice: The Art of Labour Relations

Trade Union general counsel Maria Ludkin tells Reuben Guttman about the connections between life as an art lawyer and her current role as general counsel of the GMB. This blog written by Reuben Guttman who practices at of Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC and was published in the Global Legal Post on May 12, 2014.

Maria Ludkin knows a lot about art. As counsel to Christie’s for over 12 years, the UK solicitor spent seven years in London as head of litigation and a further five in New York. These days Ludkin is back in the UK – in a different, albeit equally creative role. As General Counsel of the GMB, the UK’s third largest and fastest growing trade union with 635 thousand members, she and her team design campaigns to focus attention on the wages and working conditions for its members who are low wage earners in the public, retail, and utilities sectors. Talking to Ludkin about the GMB’s campaigns, the idea of them being an art form is not so far-fetched. For Ludkin, her artistic “mediums” are the press, the legislature and the courts. She has an acute understanding of how efforts that utilise these three forums lead to results.

Background

Shortly after her graduation from Brunel University with a degree in law and international relations, Ms Ludkin found herself representing 3000 elderly home owners on the verge of losing their homes through mortgage fraud. She orchestrated a media and political strategy that brought her clients relief and led to tightening of UK’s rules governing the selling of endowment securities. This “triumph in the face of a difficult situation” has inspired some of her more recent campaigns.

Private equity campaign

Keeping pace with efforts by multinationals and private equity investors to skim more profits by suppressing wages and eliminating benefits is undoubtedly a challenge which demands creative solutions, much persistence and a solid knowledge of corporate law and finance.

In 2007, Leicester University Professor of Labour Relations Ian Clark worked with Ms Ludkin and Paul Malloney of the GMB on its submission to the Treasury Select Committee inquiry into private equity. In his account of the experience, Clark said that it established that private equity investors often break implicit contracts with the workforce and that “these investors are largely unregulated by the government.” Ms Ludkin added that while private equity investors “may be good for short term investors, it is usually a disaster for employees and the long term health of the company.”

In this campaign, Ms Ludkin broke out of traditional campaigning models and utilised not only press, politicians, and stunts, but also identified activist shareholders whose interests aligned with the campaign and even reached out to rival firms and competitors to comment on her campaign. She successfully had what was usually the opposition press telling her story of cleaners paying more taxes than the private equity partners whose offices they were cleaning. Such tactics ensured that Ludkin won the moral high-ground and successfully brought about changes in regulations of private equity firms.

The Amazon workers

The GMB’s campaign to communicate the plight of Amazon’s 20,000 UK warehouse workers who are paid low wages with minimal benefits is another case in point. “We had to create a visual image of these contract employees who work 10.5 hour shifts walking over 15 miles a day,” says Ms Ludkin. “The warehouses are massive and workers must record fifteen miles on their feet or face termination.”

For Ludkin and her team, focusing on the 15 mile figure was the essential element in creating a visual image of worker mistreatment. “We have an incredible team with incredible researchers and I love it when ideas gel,” says Ludkin. In the case of Amazon, Ludkin’s GMB team wanted to show that workers were “being treated like robots.”

Looking back on her career path, Ludkin reflects that while she “loved working with the extraordinary colleagues in the art world,” she wanted to work on issues with a bigger impact than “just solving rich peoples’ problems.” As for her current work, she points out that “the working poor need good lawyers.”

Tips for lawyers

What advice would this lawyer give other practitioners? Ms Ludkin has the following tips:

• In choosing a practice area, decide what makes you happy, otherwise you will get frustrated and ultimately bored.
• Being able to tell a good story is the key to delivering a message.
• Try to create visual images of the problem and raise issues that will make the listener continue to think about what you said.
• Stretch outside your comfort zone and work with a diverse group of people, not just people like you; the best messages come after testing them out with people who have diverse personalities and skills and sharpening your arguments by listening to people who have completely opposing views to your own.

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