When Antone Melton-Meaux, the Minneapolis attorney challenging Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s Aug. 11 Democratic primary, discusses his legal career, he tends to focus on his current role as founder of a workplace mediation firm.
It’s a line of work that he credits with inspiring his conciliatory disposition ― a contrast with the “divisiveness” that he says has characterized Omar’s tenure in Washington.
But as a partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis, from 2010 to 2013, Melton-Meaux was no stranger to conflict. In at least three cases, he represented large companies that were fighting lawsuits from workers claiming they faced discrimination or were cheated out of pay.
Several Twin Cities labor leaders, who represent unions or labor federations that have endorsed Omar, plan to hold a news conference Friday morning to condemn Melton-Meaux’s work for the firm and suggesting that his role there undermines his commitment to protecting labor rights.
“It’s troubling to see somebody who’s running as a Democrat have that sort of record,” said Chris Shields, a spokesperson for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, an umbrella federation that counts most of the state’s labor unions among its members. “You can parse out what division you are in, but you are still choosing to associate yourself with, and be employed by, a firm that engages in union-busting.”
Rose Roach, executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association, called Melton-Meaux’s work for the firm “disturbing.”
“It’s hard not to take a look at that and say, ‘Why should we believe you? What’s changed?’” Roach said.
Melton-Meaux’s campaign says that he never represented companies seeking to prevent unionization in their workplace or otherwise undermine their unions’ power.
In fact, while working at another firm, Melton-Meaux represented the National Football League Players Association, the union that represents professional football players, according to campaign spokesperson Jim Faulkner.
Asked how Melton-Meaux responded to critics who are skeptical of his pro-union credentials, Faulkner pointed to Melton-Meaux’s support for a “living wage” tied to inflation and the establishment of paid family leave, as well as his endorsement of the PRO Act, union-backed legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize by, among other things, increasing penalties for employers’ violations of labor law.
“Our voters know that in Congress, Antone will be a strong supporter of labor and will work hard to strengthen and grow unions across the country,” Faulkner said.
In Faulkner’s Thursday comments, he did not make clear what Melton-Meaux considers a “living wage.” Omar, like organized labor and nearly all members of the House Democratic Caucus, supports raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $15.
But on Friday, Faulkner added that Melton-Meaux supports a $15 hourly minimum wage and even identifying a higher figure that meets workers’ needs.
“The reality is, even working full time, $15 an hour does not meet the basic cost of living in many areas, such as the Fifth District,” Faulkner said.
Melton-Meaux has received just one donation from a current employee of Jackson Lewis. Weldon Latham, a senior executive who oversees the firm’s internal diversity and inclusion protocols, contributed $300 to Melton-Meaux’s campaign.
“Our voters know that in Congress, Antone will be a strong supporter of labor and will work hard to strengthen and grow unions across the country.”
But Melton-Meaux skirted one of HuffPost’s questions about the nature of his work for Jackson Lewis.
Law partners, as opposed to more junior attorneys, are generally entitled to share in their firm’s profits. If Melton-Meaux’s compensation was based on his firm’s overall performance, he might have benefited from the firm’s anti-union consulting cases even if he did not work on them directly.
Asked on Thursday whether he might have profited from the firm’s anti-union work, Faulkner said, “His compensation was related to work he did related to employment law, not involving union issues.”
In a follow-up exchange on Friday, Faulkner said that Melton-Meaux was never an “equity partner” at Jackson Lewis and thus never shared in the firm’s profits.
In addition, HuffPost obtained details of three cases in which Melton-Meaux represented large companies being sued by former workers.
Though the cases did not involve efforts to undermine a union organizing drive or other forms of concerted labor activity, in all of them, Melton-Meaux aided powerful companies in cases involving workers with serious claims of wrongdoing.
In Atem v. Accurate HomeCare, Melton-Meaux was part of a team representing a home health care company whose former employee, Isabelle Atem, sued the company claiming racial and sex discrimination, a hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Atem, a Cameroonian American, said that she was punished for technical violations of company rules while the company ignored similar behavior from white employees. She also claimed that white co-workers had behaved in a discriminatory fashion toward her.
After becoming pregnant, Atem said, she noticed that the company did not give her work hours for the following month, and she quit in protest over what she considered discrimination. In September 2013, a federal judge dismissed some of the claims but allowed the racial and sex discrimination claims to proceed.
Reached by HuffPost for comment, Atem said she had reached a settlement with the company and was thus unable to speak about the case.
In an earlier case, Edwards v. Multiband, Melton-Meaux defended Multiband, a contractor for DirecTV, facing a class-action lawsuit from workers who accused the company of illegally underpaying them. The company, the workers argued, had paid them based on the completion of their work rather than on an hourly rate, forcing them to work more than 40 hours a week. Ordinarily, U.S. labor law would entitle workers working more than 40 hours a week to overtime pay, but in this case, they did not receive it. A federal judge approved a financial settlement that the workers reached with the company in March 2012.
Further, in Halldorson v. Emeritus Corp., Melton-Meaux represented the then-elder care company Emeritus, which was facing a lawsuit over the firing of one of its employees. Teresa Halldorson claimed that the company maneuvered to push her out after she returned from a medical leave. A federal judge ruled in favor of Emeritus in August 2013.
“When a case was brought up, [Melton-Meaux’s] role was to best understand the case from both sides’ perspective and to determine the best course of action for the client,” Faulkner said. “In most instances, the best course of action agreed upon by both employer and employee was to resolve the case in a manner that met expectations on both sides.”
More than the clients Melton-Meaux represented while at Jackson Lewis, however, his association with the firm itself is a source of concern for labor unions.
Jackson Lewis advertises its expertise in helping companies remain “union free” through the technically legal closed-door propaganda meetings and veiled threats that companies have increasingly used to wear down unions since the 1980s.
In some cases, the firm may have violated the law. The battery maker EnerSys sued Jackson Lewis in 2004, claiming the firm advised it to engage in illegal retaliation against employees who formed a union at a South Carolina factory. The lawsuit followed EnerSys’ settlement with the federal government, which alleged more than 120 labor violations, for $7.75 million.
Jackson Lewis’s reputation is so strong that Jay Leno, then host of “The Tonight Show,” backed out a paid performance at a human resources trade group conference in Las Vegas in 2000 when he learned that the firm was sponsoring a seminar on union avoidance. (Leno was a member of the union of on-air television workers that would later become SAG-AFTRA.)
Melton-Meaux appears to have been aware that his time at Jackson Lewis would elicit negative attention in a Democratic primary. He omitted his stint there from the biography on his campaign website, even though that section notes that he began his career at the prestigious law firm Skadden Arps.
Likewise, the website for his mediation firm, Work Resolve Mediation, touts his past work as an attorney for St. Jude’s Hospital and Abbott Laboratories but references Jackson Lewis only obliquely. The site says Melton-Meaux “brings a unique skill set to resolving employment disputes leveraging his experience as a partner of an employment law firm.”
“Everybody can have a change of heart, but you’ve got to walk the walk. Ilhan is a union sister,” said Roach, noting her membership in the public-sector union AFSCME during her time as a state government employee. “She’s a proven entity. Why not stick with what we know?”
This story has been updated to include follow-up comments from Melton-Meaux’s campaign about his position on the $15 minimum wage and the financial nature of his status as a partner at Jackson Lewis.