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Meet the RNC-Linked Law Firm Behind Duke’s Anti-Union Crusade

The long, sordid history of Ogletree Deakins.

Warren LeMay

On January 6, Duke University President Vincent E. Price fired off a statement about the riot at the U.S. Capitol earlier that day. “It is the direct result of a campaign to sow mistrust in our democracy and to overturn an election that was by all reasonable accounts conducted freely and fairly,” Price said. “These events are made all the more shameful by their futility—they are based on falsehoods and conspiracies that have been rejected in local, state, and federal courts across the country, and they simply will not change the outcome of our democratic process.”

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The day before the riot, the Greenville, South Carolina-based office of Ogletree Deakins—a multi-national management-side labor law firm which has represented Duke in more than two dozen National Labor Relations Board cases dating back to at least 2000, according to NLRB records—was paid more than $30,000 in “legal and compliance services” fees by the Republican National Committee, according to a review of FEC records. The previous month, the RNC had paid Ogletree slightly more than $50,000, for a combined total of $81,000 over the course of two months.

Anyone critical of the perpetuation of “falsehoods and conspiracies” about the electoral process would surely be nauseated by the RNC’s behavior during the 2020 campaign. Over the course of the fall and after the election, the organization repeatedly boosted and parroted the Trump campaign’s unsupported claims that the election had been stolen.

Defenders of fair elections would also presumably not want to be tied to anyone who was on the payroll of such groups. But apparently, Ogletree’s ties to the RNC weren’t particularly toxic to Duke. According to records reviewed by Discourse Blog, representatives from both Ogletree and the university met multiple times to discuss the Duke University Press union after organizers went public last month.

The union publicly alleged that the university had hired Ogletree on March 30, a day after announcing the unionization effort.

The firm has frequently represented Duke over the past two decades, including last year against a complaint from Duke Transit drivers and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1328 and another filed in November by an individual. In 2017, Duke also used the only U.S.-based employment-side labor law firm that’s arguably bigger than Ogletree, Proskauer Rose, to help fight a bid by Duke graduate workers to unionize with SEIU.

Aside from the payment dates and the vague description of the work Ogletree did for the RNC, there’s no way to tell when the work was performed or what the nature of the work even was, according to Erin Chlopak, the director of campaign finance strategy at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “What [the filings] are highlighting is the limits to what disclosure rules require committees or parties to tell about how they’re spending money,” Chlopak told Discourse Blog.

Duke declined to answer questions about its legal representation in the case, and did not respond to a request for comment on Ogletree Deakins’ work with the RNC or Duke’s meetings with Ogletree in March. Ogletree Deakins did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Discourse Blog.

Ogletree Deakins was founded in 1977 in Greenville and Atlanta, and now has more than 50 offices across the U.S. as well as five other countries. Ogletree boasts on its website that the firm has been a “pioneer in developing strategies and practices that create positive employee relations” in order to “minimize the risk of unionization.”

Outside of Duke, Ogletree has in recent years represented Boeing in its effort to stop workers at a factory in North Charleston, South Carolina from unionizing and IKEA in its fight against a union at a store in Massachusetts, among others. But it’s also been hired by more “progressive” organizations to help fight off unionization, such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU of Kansas chapter (the chapter ultimately abandoned its effort to fight the union and voluntarily recognized it.

Ogletree also represented racist former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and defended the North Carolina Republican Party in lawsuits against its racially-based gerrymandering. The name of the Raleigh-based Ogletree lawyer who defended the NCGOP may be familiar to you as well: Thomas Farr, the former Jesse Helms aide whose 2018 nomination to the federal bench was killed after the Washington Post published a leaked Department of Justice memo finding Farr was the “primary coordinator” of the 1984 Helms re-election campaign’s effort to discourage Black voters from voting. As of 2021, Farr is listed as a firm shareholder.

Politically, the group most prominently worked for the Republican Party in 2012, when it billed the RNC for more than $60,000 in legal and compliance services fees as well as a total of $90,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee for consultation on recounts, according to the FEC records. The firm has mostly worked for Republican and Republican-affiliated groups, though the campaign of Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, a co-sponsor of the PRO Act and former member of the Culinary Workers Union as a Caesars Palace waitress, paid the firm nearly $800 to reimburse them for catering in March 2019.

Duke University Press is seeking recognition for several dozen publishing workers at the university, and said in a statement to Discourse Blog that it was “deeply concerned” about Ogletree’s connection to the RNC.

“Ogletree Deakins clearly has a reputation for representing organizations that seek to undermine invaluable democratic processes,” the Duke University Press union said in a statement, “and we cannot expect Duke to respect our rights in our workplace so long as they continue to work with Ogletree Deakins instead of meeting directly with DUP staff to negotiate.”