A Tale of Disputing Slugs

April 23, 2012

Renee Sanchez (second from right) protested the WTO in Seattle in 1999, where she was inspired to pursue a career in law while staying true to her activist roots.
Warren Nelson in his UCSC days. He was one of the first male students to sport long hair.

By Laurel Fujii

An arbitrator, a table and 27 years separate UCSC alumni Warren Nelson and Renee Sanchez as they represent opposing parties in labor arbitration disputes in Southern California. Sanchez represents some of the nation’s largest labor unions, and Nelson represents many large, national employers.

“Our clients have seen us scream at each other in the hall,” said Sanchez, a 1996 graduate. “I feel I’m on the “right” side, representing the true 99%, the working people, but to be fair [Nelson] probably does too. He’s good at what he does.

Over the past year, they have had four hearings together, but their confrontations began a few years back.

Amidst the arguments, rebuttals and decisions, Nelson overheard Sanchez mention Santa Cruz to a client and Nelson and Sanchez found UCSC as their new topic of conversation and common interest.

As a member of the pioneer 1969 class, Nelson arrived at UCSC the first day the campus opened and lived in the doublewide trailers that once constituted as Cowell College.

“I was the first or second kid at UC Santa Cruz with long hair,” he boasts. “I let my crew cut start growing out the minute I waved goodbye to my parents.”

College 9 was freshly built, grades did not exist and Santa Cruzians protested Starbucks’ downtown opening when Sanchez attended UCSC in the mid ‘90s.

“Bettina Aptheker and Angela Davis were on sabbatical and I was so bummed to miss both of them,” said Sanchez, who majored in sociology and focused on race, class and gender. “I could have minored in women’s studies, I took so many classes.”

Their eras of student activism established and fostered UCSC’s connotation of liberal-opinionated students that continues today.

Nelson vigorously protested the Vietnam War and declined “invitations” from his draft board a number of times.

“I would do the same thing today,” he says.

Sanchez remembers marching up Bay St. to protest Prop. 209, led by UC Regent Ward Connerly and overturned affirmative action in public employment and education. While in law school seven years later, Sanchez received a fellowship to work against Prop. 54, another Connerly initiative that was ultimately defeated.  

The sense of activism influenced their post-graduation career paths, which Nelson and Sanchez found to be more similar than they realized. Prior to sitting at the same table now, both were involved with unions.

After graduating from UCSC, Sanchez worked as a community organizer and protested the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

“I remember being inspired by an activist lawyer who trained us how to protest and about our constitutional rights,” Sanchez said. “It was then I knew I could remain an activist, but also become a lawyer.”

Sanchez went on to graduate from a public interest law school, New College of California in San Francisco. 

Before he went to law school at the University of Wisconsin, Nelson enjoyed the challenges as a union staff representative, but found clients to be enervating.

“I couldn’t stand internal union politics,” Nelson said. “I got tired of defending people who really weren’t serious about their work even more.”

While Nelson said he would still resist the draft today, he admits his disaffected younger self probably would be surprised to see where he ended up.

“I never thought I’d be partner in a national management side law firm,” Nelson said. “But then again, I doubt many companies would’ve hired the 1969 version of me.”

Regardless of change, certain attributes of Nelson’s personality and work ethics remind Sanchez of Santa Cruz.

“I don’t doubt he feels he’s serving his people, the same feeling I got of service from UCSC,” Sanchez said. “[In addition,] there’s a quirkiness to him, definitely. But quirkiness is cool. People have described me as quirky so maybe we have that in common.”

In turn, Nelson sees a Santa Cruzian in Sanchez.

“A young woman like Renee representing strong unions at a young age shows she has a lot of maturity,” Nelson said. “She’s intellectually curious and genuinely appreciates all of the unpredictable and crazy stuff that happens in the world of work. At Santa Cruz, you learn to appreciate the humor and drama in everyday life events. You become so interested in just about anything.”

Despite their Santa Cruz ties and similar activist kinship, they do not let camaraderie interfere with advocating on behalf of their clients.

“My clients don’t care if I think Warren’s a good guy because if we have to fight, we will,” Sanchez said.

Of their four most current cases, they are 1-1, waiting on a decision, and turning in briefs for a fourth.

Despite their new residencies in Southern California, they couldn’t stay away from Santa Cruz. Nelson’s daughter graduated from Porter, the same college Sanchez was affiliated with, and is now an illustrator for Random House. Sanchez’s husband is co-owner of Santa Cruz’s iconic vegetarian-friendly Saturn Cafe and they split their time between the Bay Area and Pasadena.  

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve arrived in places I never thought I was headed,” Nelson said, “but the perspectives I developed at UCSC helped keep me fresh and amused. It’s inspiring when I encounter someone like Renee, who believes in what she’s doing and is good at what she does. We take polar opposite positions in most every instance, but I think we recognize there is a kernel of truth in our fellow ‘slugs’s’ closing argument.”

Laurel Fujii is a UCSC Humanities Development student intern and a second-year American Studies major.