As I sat in my home office preparing for my second interview with Shannon Liss-Riordan, I couldn’t help but reflect on how drastically things had changed over the past couple of months. I thought back to my first interview with her in February and I remembered climbing up the stairs to the second floor of an office building in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. I noticed how new and modern everything looked as I walked through the large glass doors leading me into the spacious waiting area adorned with artwork and leather furniture.
Fast forward to April, the city of Boston is under stay at home orders and I am preparing to conduct a follow up interview with Liss-Riordan via Zoom. I reviewed my notes from our previous interview, looked up to the computer screen and said “I have to ask this question first: How did you get the nickname The Sledgehammer?”
Before I explain that awesome nickname, it's important to know who exactly this hero is. Liss-Riordan is an American labor attorney who is well known for her dedication to protecting women, families and workers. Originally from Texas, she moved to Boston to study science but later learned that her passion was law and went on to attend and graduate from Harvard Law School. Since then she has started her own law practice in Boston called Lichten & Liss-Riordan, P.C. and has argued cases across the country.
“Big corporations and the rich and powerful have so much power in so many ways over regular working people who go to work for a living. If we don't have laws that are enforced to try and keep some balance then the working people can really be taken advantage of and I've just seen that in so many different ways.”
After graduating Harvard Law School, Liss-Riordan moved to New York and worked with ex-congress woman Bella Abzug. She was inspired by Abzug’s passion for the women's rights movement. She knew that she wanted to represent people without a voice and help regular working people who have been taken advantage of. After realizing her dreams of becoming a labor attorney it didn't take long for her to find success and acquire such a legendary nickname.
Shannon smiled and began telling me the story of how she got the nickname “The Sledgehammer” from her former clients at SkyCaps. Skycaps are the people who check in your bags for you at the airport so you don't have to wait in a long line. They are the first friendly face that a lot of people see when they fly out of Logan Airport and they make most of their money through tips. Liss-Riordan initiated a lawsuit against American Airlines because they were looking for a way to raise fees when they realised that passengers were giving a lot of cash to SkyCaps. They decided to put up a sign at the airport that said “Curbside check in $2 per bag”. The SkyCaps were very upset about this because it destroyed the income they were earning from tips.
Basically, these big corporations were attempting to increase their profits at the expense of low paid Skycaps employees. As Liss Riordan put it: “Everyone thought that the two dollars a bag was the tip and so the SkyCaps were no longer getting tips. So we brought this case to trial and we proved to the jury that people thought they were tipping the Skycaps when they paid this two dollar fee. It was this big victory and first we got American Airlines and then United Airlines and then US Airways to stop the two dollar per bag charge.” It was during the celebration following the victory that she was dubbed “Sledgehammer Shannon” by her clients.
If you're still not a believer in her dedication to helping the underdog, Liss-Riordan also reflected upon a number of other cases she worked on in defense of workers rights during the interview. She told me the story of how she ended up investing in a local pizza franchise, the Upper Crust, who’s employees she represented in a case against the former owners. After the Upper Crust owners filed for bankruptcy Liss-Riordan and her husband went to an auction and bought one of the stores and re-named it the Just Crust. “We turned it into a pizza shop focused on justice for the workers and based it on a fair employment model where the workers were treated well.” Stories like this one made it clear that she was truly invested in her community.
Upon wrapping up our interview, I began to understand the importance of having professionals like Liss-Riordan in the community who stand up for employees and protect their rights. I imagine myself working as a SkyCap or at a pizzeria and how frustrating and powerless someone can feel when they don´t have a voice that will represent them. Even though the world is on pause she hasn't stopped serving justice. Today, Liss-Riordan continues to bring justice to people in need via Zoom. The world would certainly be a better place with more lawyers like her.