Beth Shulman dies at 60; labor lawyer fought for low-wage workers

Beth Shulman, a Washington, D.C., labor lawyer and author who championed the rights and welfare of low-wage earners, died Feb. 5 at Georgetown University Hospital. She was 60.

Diagnosed last fall with a malignant brain tumor, she died of complications of pneumonia, said family spokeswoman Rochelle Lefkowitz.

"Beth was a visionary, activist, strategist and chronicler on behalf of workers throughout her career," said Kathy Bonk, executive director of Communications Consortium/DC, a public interest media group that collaborated with Shulman on the Fairness Initiative on Low-Wage Work, a combined effort by 20 nonprofit organizations.

Shulman was the author of "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans," published in 2003 by New Press.

Marshaling a blizzard of statistics and anecdotes collected on her travels around the country, it argued that janitors, hotel maids, security guards, nursing aides and other low-wage workers have reasonably high skills and intelligence and deserve greater respect.

In the book and numerous public appearances, she also argued that minimum-wage jobs have become minimum-wage careers, dead ends that consign workers to permanent poverty.

"Workers feel like they're doing everything America has asked of them -- working hard, taking pride in their work -- but America has broken its promise to them that if they work hard, they can make a living," she told a reporter in 2004.

The book earned some major notices, including one by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek who called it "a damning new book . . . that should be required reading for every presidential candidate and member of Congress."

Shulman was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1949. She earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at UCLA in 1971 and a law degree at Georgetown University in 1974.

She was admitted to the bar in Tennessee, where she worked for a Memphis civil rights law firm on cases involving labor discrimination and school desegregation.

In 1976, she joined the legal staff of the 1.4-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents supermarket and clerical workers, and served for 13 years as a vice president.

Shulman was a senior analyst with the Russell Sage Foundation and served on the boards of several organizations, including the National Employment Law Project board, which she chaired.

She is survived by her husband, Ernie Englander; a son, Aaron, of Washington; and her mother, Annette Shulman, of Los Angeles.

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