Peter Romer-Friedman (BA 2001, Economics and Social Science), Truman Scholar and a self-proclaimed “pain in the butt” for administrators as a student at Michigan, is now a prominent civil rights lawyer in Washington, DC. Romer-Friedman is currently a member of the Civil Rights and Employment Practice group at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC. The law firm’s biography covers his work history since college. We wanted to ask him, though, what propelled him into such a career. Highlights of his burgeoning career include serving as labor counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions when its Chair was Edward M. Kennedy; and being recognized in 2014 as a Rising Star in the Washington, DC area by Super Lawyers.
Romer-Friedman was very involved with The Michigan Daily from the start of his undergraduate career. His first major stories were about the Affirmative Action lawsuits; his coverage won an award from Columbia . After his first year, Romer-Friedman participated in the “Union Summer” sponsored by the AFL-CIO in New Orleans, LA. “That was a pivotal month and a half in New Orleans. That internship sparked a career in social and economic justice -- and I met my wife there,” shared Romer-Friedman. “I was appalled by the conditions of many of the workers.” When he returned to campus in fall 1998, Romer-Friedman and several other students who attended the same program in different parts of the country combined forces to create SOLE (Students Organizing for Labor & Economics Equality), a student organization that is still active on campus today. He was also involved in United Students Against Sweatshops, serving on the national steering committee for that group for some time.
Romer-Friedman and SOLE campaigned against the use of sweatshops in making college apparel. In March 1999, they organized a sit-in over three days in then President Bollinger’s office. In their second year of campaigning, Bollinger agreed to sign to join the Worker Rights Consortium, which monitors factories around the world to hold them accountable for fair labor standards. As many will remember, this was a large movement, not only at the University of Michigan, but across the entire country. “This was really the first student movement of the internet era. We relied on email, conference calls -- this was before social media -- and the news media were fascinated by it,” reflected Romer-Friedman. “We were also trying to use the law to change an industry. This was done through the use of private contracts we negotiated with high powered lawyers, most often without lawyers on our side!” It was his dedication to public service that earned Romer-Friedman the honor of a University nomination for a Truman Scholarship, a national scholarship for future change agents and public servants.. “[The Truman Organization] is a tremendously wonderful community to be a part of. I appreciated that even though I was anti-establishment (I was sitting-in in Bollinger’s and the Dean’s offices), they’d still put me up to represent the University in a national scholarship competition,” recalled Romer-Friedman.
Romer-Friedman feels he has grown tremendously in his profession. “I learned a lot about advocacy and law. I use the things I learned then every day now as a civil rights lawyer, as I did when I was on [Ted] Kennedy’s committee, or when I was working with the steelworkers union.” In his two years as labor counsel for the U.S. Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Romer-Friedman worked on a range of issues, including wage per hour, overtime rights, farm workers’ rights, and veteran s’ employment. He also wrote speeches and did research while on the committee, including work for then-Senator Barack Obama. He helped mediate a contract between Amtrak and several unions to avoid a shutdown. He worked on drafting bills to help veterans return to their jobs when they return from duty. However, being on the legislative side of things was proving to have its challenges. “Issues I really cared about were unlikely to see action in Congress and that’s part of what pushed me back to litigation -- public interest litigation,” Romer-Friedman stated. “Progressive lawyers can make positive change. There’s been progressive change in courts using Civil Rights Law, since its passage: well, we’ve just celebrated its 50th anniversary!”
It’s clear to see that Romer-Friedman’s professional growth is grounded from his experiences as an undergraduate at UM. “Michigan has a history of promoting positive social change -- that’s part of what drew me to UM. (I’m also a sports fan.) From Peace Corps to Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Action Movement in the 1970s, UM works to make society a fairer place, a more equitable place.”