Local employment attorney remembers her Detroit days
Employment and labor attorney Gabrielle Lee Caruso, can remember nails in her tires and her mailbox exploding when she represented union workers and company managers in the heart of labor-intensive Detroit. As a rule, the 26-year legal veteran has always been willing to represent the employer or an employee’s side of labor arguments, she says. She believes both sides share a common goal. Workers want to earn a living, and employers want to make money, so they need each other, Caruso explains. But Caruso’s impartiality was rare in Detroit, where lawyers chose a side and stuck to it. At Michigan Bar Association meetings and conventions, attorneys polarized into clusters of those who represented employers and those who represented workers, she says. But like her mentor, who had been a veteran chief trial attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, she preferred a mix of clients. "It was exciting," Caruso recalls of her days in Detroit. "I would cross picket lines and we’d stay up all night negotiating until the last moment before contracts expired." Once when she attended a union meeting, representing a Teamster worker who felt his union was not representing him fairly, she remembers two Teamsters, who did not appreciate her presence, taking her by the elbows and escorting her out of the building. She cannot recall anything close to that kind of drama now that she lives West of the Mississippi. Caruso graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and earned her J.D. from Michigan State University. After practicing law for 18 years in Detroit, Caruso was chief of the Employment Section at the Utah Attorney General’s Office, where she worked from 2000 to 2005, counseling and defending state agencies including universities, colleges and school districts in employment-related issues. In August of this year, Caruso joined Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy P.C. with offices in Park City and Salt Lake. She admits she misses the thrill of Detroit’s labor battles, but Caruso finds that Utah makes up for it with mountains and fresh air, and the chance to spend more time with her now six-year-old daughter, Mikayla. But she finds the litigious climate of Utah is changing. Initially, Park City and Utah for that matter did not share the same employee-employer clash she wrestled with in Detroit. She observes that she tends to work more on matters that concern the different federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination based upon a protected status like race or gender, than she works on union matters. She senses newcomers to the state from larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are making the state a tad more litigious when it comes to employee-employer issues by teaching coworkers about their rights as employees a lesson she believes usually comes when workers join unions. Utah is a "right to work" state, which means that union fees are not automatically deducted from paychecks, a policy that contributes, in part, to weaker unions, and workers less informed about their rights, Caruso says. Employees, she explains, don’t typically volunteer their wages to unions. Caruso perceives a parallel between religious conflicts in Utah and union-management conflicts in the Detroit area, where she was raised. "Where I grew up, the dichotomy was everywhere — there were union families or non-union families," she confirmed. "It was almost like a religion out there, and I actually see a similarity in the conflict between union and management and Mormons and non-Mormons. In Michigan it’s also about race, and that’s never truly been resolved."
What Caruso likes best about employment and labor law is its human element, she says.
"I like my job because it’s not about making money on cars, it’s about people and their lives. I like it because it’s very people-oriented and people take their jobs very seriously. Their livelihood means something to them, so there’s a human approach to it," she explained. "I help people treat other people fairly."
Given the increasingly litigious culture in Utah, Caruso recommends more employers take preventative measures.
"A lot of employers don’t think about bringing in a lawyer to prevent law suits, but there are hundreds of state and federal laws that employers may not be aware of, and I can help them so that that they don’t get sued in the future," she said. "I think employees and employers in the end have the same goal, and they achieve more if they work together."
Most of the Park City cases Caruso has worked on have to do with immigration and an employer’s obligation to hire legally authorized workers, and less to do with the labor-law side of things. Local issues do pop up occasionally in her field, especially with the growing Hispanic population, such as whether an English-only advertisement inherently discriminates against the Spanish-speaking population.
"Park City workers tend to be happy," she admits.
But should any labor dispute erupt in the resort area or in Salt Lake, Caruso will be ready.
"It was the best education I could have gotten, because I’ve seen it all I’ve handled a lot of litigation and I had an opportunity to counsel employers with thousands of workers," she says recalling the years she spent in Detroit. "The wide range of cases I’ve worked on have been absolutely invaluable."
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