In Travis County, Texas, which includes the city of Austin, there’s a new district attorney in town. His name is José Garza and, unlike many district attorneys, he didn’t cut his teeth in criminal law — he built his career as a workers’ rights attorney. And while he certainly prosecutes high-profile defendants when he needs to, his attention is especially trained on predatory businesses. When a bad business breaks the law through unsafe working conditions or by not paying workers what they’re owed, his office swings into action.
“When I took office at the beginning of last year, our number one priority was to implement policies that would keep our communities safe. And we know what keeps us safe: It is stability,” Garza said in an online fireside chat in early March, explaining how white collar crime puts working class people in desperate situations, unable to afford housing, food, and healthcare that they need. “For well over 100 years in this country, we’ve been told that ‘public safety’ is locking up as many working class people and people of color as possible. But the concept of wage theft challenges our tightly-held perceptions of who are the perpetrators of crime.”
This fireside chat was organized by Public Rights Project, a non-profit that helps state, local, and tribal governments fight for the rights of their communities by providing them with the expertise they need to enforce the laws already on their books, like worker protections. The organization has partnered with Garza’s office, supporting its efforts to crack down on predatory businesses by providing technical and strategic assistance, and sponsoring a Public Rights Project Fellow on-site to help build out a newly-launched Economic Justice Enforcement Initiative.
“José represents the wave of the future for us,” says Jill Habig, the founder and president of Public Rights Project. “He’s a prosecutor talking about how economic justice fits into a public safety agenda. People don't always connect those dots.”
To Habig, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, the line between them is clear. A lawyer who worked as Special Counsel to Attorney General Kamala Harris in California and launched the state’s much-lauded Bureau of Children's Justice, Habig started the Public Rights Project in 2017 with an ambitious goal: to close the gap between the promise of American laws and their actual impact.
“When people think about their rights, they think about a law being passed. But that’s really just the beginning,” Habig explains. “The fact that a law exists that says you’re entitled to $15 an hour as a minimum wage doesn't mean you get that $15 an hour, unless there's resources to enforce that law and make sure that people are held accountable if they don't follow it. I think of laws as statements of intent. Enforcement is what makes the law real for people.”
Enforcement isn’t something we think about very much, and when we do, it’s often about the role of the police in law enforcement. What’s less obvious are the day-to-day gaps between what the law says we are owed and what we actually receive. And yet, according to Public Rights Project’s research, 54% of Americans have suffered violations of their rights in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in their communities.
Public Rights Project is laser-focused on this issue of enforcement. It provides city, district and state attorneys with know-how to start focusing more deeply on it, and use a wide variety of existing laws to defend their citizens’ civil, economic and environmental rights, just as Garza is doing. Women, people of color, and low-income communities are more likely to have their rights violated on a repeat basis, so this work can have a transformational effect on vulnerable communities. Enforcement, says Habig, is the cornerstone of trust.
Public Rights Project works across issues — voting rights, housing, wage theft, predatory loans, immigration rights – and takes a three-pronged approach: they offer strategic support to partners, helping them build high-impact enforcement cases; they strengthen the talent pipeline by placing Public Rights Project Fellows in partner agencies; and most crucially, they work with community organizations who have vital information on threats to residents’ health, safety and financial well-being.
I think of laws as statements of intent. Enforcement is what makes the law real for people.
“I really think we have our justice system upside down,” says Habig. “We over-police and over-prosecute people for things like drug possession and crimes related to poverty, and we under-enforce things like workers’ rights laws, consumer protection laws, fair housing laws that are the backbone of people's well-being. Enforcing the law through the lens of equity not only creates a sense of justice, it also changes lives.”
Habig herself was drawn to the potential of the law early on. Inspired by two heroes in her life — her mother and her grandfather – she decided to go to law school.
Her mother was the first woman elected to the school board in her hometown of Jasper, Indiana — she dared to defy the town’s “old boys club” by knocking on doors, with a two-year-old Habig on her back, and running a full-out campaign. And then there was her grandfather. “He was working in a factory, putting himself through school around the beginning of the labor movement. Workers were organizing in the plant, and he volunteered to negotiate because he didn't think he was going to be around for long,” says Habig. He ended up being a life-long union organizer, advocating for workers fiercely at arbitration hearings. “People thought he was a lawyer, even though he wasn’t.”
Watch Jill Habig's talk from the 2021 Dial Fellows Summit.
Habig went to law school with a very “Law & Order” sense of what being a lawyer was. But on her first day as legal fellow in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, she got a surprise: the courts said they would hear the city’s challenge to Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative passed in 2008 banning same-sex marriage. “I spent my entire first year as a lawyer working on that trial,” says Habig. “I think it completely changed the course of my life and career.”
The case gave her a powerful example of how a city attorney’s office could think about its work. Instead of prosecuting low-level criminals and defending the city when someone slips in a government building, a city could deploy its resources to protect people’s rights. And it could use existing laws to do it.
This idea lodged itself in Habig’s mind and she continued working toward it in the state of California for years. But after the 2016 election, Habig realized she needed to bring her vision to the national stage.
So she started fundraising for Public Rights Project. When it launched programming in 2018, it had just two partners. But today, it’s grown into a network that includes 93 state, local and tribal governments — from District Attorney José Garza’s Office in Austin to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in Boston — as well as community organizations across the country. This network approach is critical, says Habig, as nodes can share information and ideas. “They can learn from each other much faster than they could in isolation.”
Enforcing the law through the lens of equity not only creates a sense of justice, it also changes lives.
In 2021, the work of Public Rights Project was wide-ranging. The organization helped take action against the tech company Handy for misclassifying workers. They helped secure COVID-19 hazard pay for grocery workers. They won a series of fair housing settlements, including a landmark ruling against abusive landlords. They supported six offices in starting new enforcement units and authored seven amicus briefs with more than 126 government and community partners. They won two-thirds of those cases.
Last year, according to its newly-released impact report, Public Rights Project’s efforts have helped recover over $14 million — about four times its operating budget. “That really highlights the potential of this model,” says Habig. “If we hold large companies accountable for misconduct and get people and government the relief they're owed, it has a powerful return on investment.”
This is something José Garza stressed too, during the fireside chat. Every $50, $100 and $500 recovered by the PRP-supported Economic Justice Enforcement Initiative is a win that shows everyday people their government is there for them.
“I will consider Public Rights Project a success when everyone running for office at the state and local level is talking about enforcement as part of their campaign platform. When people are asking candidates, ‘How are you going to prioritize equitable enforcement?’” Habig says. “This work can appeal across parties, across ideology. Because people fundamentally believe in fairness.”