Ellen Dannin has taught and written primarily about American and New Zealand labor and employment law. She also writes about privatization of government services and public infrastructure. Her most recent law school position was as the Penn State Dickinson School of Law Fannie Weiss Distinguished Faculty Scholar and professor of law at the Penn State Dickinson.
Early life and education
Dannin was born in Flint, Michigan in 1951 but moved to Frankfort, Indiana after her father, Arthur Dannin, had finished his education and residency as an Osteopath. Her parents were divorced in 1957, and her mother Ruby Jean Smith moved their three children to St. Paris, Ohio.
In 1975, Dannin received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan with High Honors and High Distinction and the History Department's Best Thesis Award for a study of the 19th century women's suffrage and rights movement. Dannin also received a juris doctor degree in 1978, from the University of Michigan with High Honors. In addition, while in law school, she was the Administrative Editor, for the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, the editor of the Women Law Students Newsletter, and a co-teaching fellow with Debra Armbruster for an undergraduate course—Women and the Law.
After obtaining her law degree, Dannin clerked for Cornelia G. Kennedy, a judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit, Michigan. She clerked for Judge Kennedy from 1978 to 1979. When Kennedy was elevated in 1979 to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Dannin clerked for her for a second year (from 1979 to 1980).
From 1980 to 1991 Dannin was an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in the seventh region office in Detroit. During that period, she was appointed a visiting professor at the Department of Commerce at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and spent all of 1990 in New Zealand. From 1991 to 2002, she was a professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California.
In 1992, she took a leave of absence to spend a year as a scholar in residence at the Center for Industrial Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and returned in 1994 as a scholar in residence in its Law Department. In 1996 she was a scholar in residence at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and held a similar position at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. She returned to Victoria University in as a scholar in residence in 1997.
Concurrently with her position at California Western, she held a position as a visiting professor in the Program in Union Leadership and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1999 to 2002, and was a visiting professor of law at the University of Michigan in 2002. In 2002, she permanently left California Western and obtained an appointment as a professor of law at the Wayne State University Law School. She left Wayne State in 2006.
In the fall of 2006, she became a professor of law at the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University. Dannin left Penn State Dickinson School of Law in 2013.
Dannin's research interests focus on United States labor law, New Zealand labor law, collective bargaining, privatization, and legal education.
Her most recent book is Taking Back the Workers' Law (2006), in which she calls for American labor movement to adopt a strategy used by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1930s. The strategy Dannin laid out borrowed from the NAACP's litigation strategy litigation strategy designed to overturn 70 years of court rulings that had limited the civil rights of African Americans. NAACP lawyers first attacked discrimination in law schools, because judges were most familiar with those organizations. Once the legal case had been won ending racial discrimination in law schools, they rapidly expanded their attack to public colleges and university, public elementary and secondary education, and the workplace.
Dannin outlines court rulings and NLRB decisions that have, in her opinion, undermined the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and contributed to a legal environment no longer conducive to union organizing and effective union activities. She argues that the American labor movement must undertake a strategy similar to that of the NAACP. She emphasizes a program designed to educate judges and lawyers about the nature of work (including the collapse of the "bright line" between supervisor and employee), arguing that most judges have little real-world experience in this regard.
Dannin's book focuses heavily on the NLRA's stated goals of social and economic justice. Dannin argues for a legal strategy that takes the preamble to the NLRA seriously; in other words, that labor attorneys should gets courts to see how existing rulings undermine the NLRA's goals of social justice and an effective labor movement.
Many American labor movement activists have argued that the legal framework of the NLRA has been so significantly undermined that union organizing should no longer occur under the auspices of the NLRA but should occur in extra-legal contexts (such as pressure campaigns).
Taking Back the Worker's Law, however, has won praise from the legal community for rejecting this characterization of the NLRA and case law and putting forth a creative and legally strong program. "Ellen Dannin proposes something unique and, ironically, much more likely to have practical effect: an articulate, passionate, even romantic defense of the nation’s basic labor law. Taking Back the Workers' Law invites labor leaders, lawyers, and academics to develop innovative litigation strategies for restoring the original intent of the law," observed Christopher Cameron, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law. Fred Feinstein, former general counsel for the NLRB, noted, that Dannin "puts forth an important perspective on how to breathe new life into our labor law. ... In original and provocative ways, Dannin maintains that too many have lost sight of what our labor law could be and argues forcefully that it can be restored to realize its fundamental purpose."
Others have been less enthusiastic about the book's prescriptive program, but acknowledged that it contains a wealth of information about U.S. labor law and the history of court rulings going back seven decades.
Unlike many legal scholars, Dannin has used blogging as a way to inform people about their employment rights, unions, privatization, and conservative ideology, including ALEC and Reason. Dannin also recently co-wrote a series with law professor Ann C. Hodges on attacks on the National Labor Relations Act.
Dannin has been a member of a number of professional organizations, including the American Bar Association, State Bar of Michigan, Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), Law and Society Association, United Association for Labor Education, and the Association of American Law Schools.
For 15 years, Dannin was the editor of the LERA newsletter, Labor and the Law, a highly popular publication widely read by academics, lawyers and labor movement activists.
She is an advisor to or reviewer for the Labor Law Journal, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Labor Studies Journal, Law and Society Review, WorkingUSA, and the Journal of Socio-Economics.She is Co-Chair, Collaborative Research Network 8 on Labor Rights, Law and Society Association 2003- She has also been a consultant for the United States Department of Labor (1987), U.S. General Accounting Office Workplace Quality Issues Panel (2003), and the New Zealand Department of Labour (1997).
- Taking Back the Workers' Law. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8014-4438-1
- Working Free: The Origins and Impact of New Zealand's Employment Contracts Act. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 1997.
- The Developing Labor Law: The Board, the Courts, and the National Labor Relations Act. 4th ed. Patrick Hardin, et al., eds. Ellen Dannin, et al., contr. Eds. Washington, D.C.: BNA Books, 2005. ISBN 1-57018-505-0