October 29, 2015

The VS. Interview: E. Christopher Johnson, CEO & Co-founder of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity

by Aaron Buchman & Stephen Strong

On Tuesday, July 21, 2015, VS. interviewed E. Christopher Johnson, a lawyer who is active in several efforts to end modern day slavery and human trafficking. Mr. Johnson chairs the ABA Business Law Section’s Task Force on Implementation of the ABA Model Principles on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor. He also serves as the President of the Board of Directors of the Michigan Abolitionist Project (MAP) and has been a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission and the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

Until 2008, Mr. Johnson served as Vice President and General Counsel of General Motors North America. After leaving General Motors, he joined the faculty of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he founded and directed the Corporate Law and Finance LL.M. Program. Presently, Mr. Johnson is the CEO & Co-founder of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity.

Mr. Johnson holds a Bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School.

Mr. Johnson’s path to Vice President and General Counsel of GM North America

After law school, I joined a leading public finance firm. From there, I became a headhunter for a few years, mostly helping attorneys lateral between big law firms or go in-house. My last client was General Motors. After meeting the leadership and before I placed any lawyers with GM, they asked me to join their staff, which I did—making myself my last placement as a headhunter. I made the decision to relocate from New York to Detroit to take a very junior position in their counsel’s office.  I was asked to take on a new area that no one seemed to want: computer law. Of course this was in the late-1980s and by the mid-1990s, I was briefing the General Counsel and senior leadership on this significant and emerging subject. I eventually took over a group of lawyers at GM that managed commercial transactions including purchasing, IT, real estate, and acquisitions and dispositions of businesses. Over time I was promoted to become one of three Assistant General Counsels on the legal staff and ultimately, Vice President and General Counsel of GM North America.

Mr. Johnson’s decision to dedicate much of his career to ending modern day slavery and human trafficking

I left GM and started the LL.M. program in Law & Finance at Cooley Law School in 2009. In early 2011, my wife and I took a mission trip to India with our church. We went to the slums in Mumbai, where our church (1) dug wells and built a simple water delivery system to each house, and (2) operated schools to help children pass the entrance exams to attend public schools. In addition we visited orphanages and homes for former sex workers stricken with AIDS. We were shocked to see how many of the orphaned children, whose mothers had died from AIDS, became victims of trafficking themselves. When we came back to the U.S., we began exploring how we could advocate for change in this area.

Mr. Johnson’s unique perspective as a corporate lawyer in the fight against modern day slavery and human trafficking

I am not a criminal lawyer or a human rights lawyer – I am a corporate lawyer. However, I understand supply chains, and how they stretch across the globe in the modern economy. I decided to approach the problem of human trafficking from my area of competence.

Mr. Johnson’s views on what is needed to reduce modern day slavery and human trafficking in the United States

Corporations need to take responsibility for, and enforce fair working principles in, their supply chains. At the same time, consumers need to take a closer look at what they are buying. However, we cannot just tell consumers “don’t buy a smartphone, they’re all made by slaves.” We need specific data and a way to identify companies that enforce fair working principles.

It is a matter of getting people to acknowledge that the problem exists – that it exists in their hometown and in their supply chains. Once they understand this, it will be inexcusable for them not to take action. Then maybe they will start thinking about dignity more broadly.

Mr. Johnson’s scholarship on the issue of modern day slavery and human trafficking

I have an article forthcoming in The Business Lawyer about human trafficking and the supply chain problem. In any global supply chain, there is a high likelihood that somewhere there is work done by slaves. Companies may not realize it, but they have the power to require social responsibility of their suppliers. Companies have an obligation to obtain the highest profit for their shareholders, but not at the expense of the dignity of the workers in their supply chain.

Mr. Johnson’s membership in the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission and the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force

The Human Trafficking Commission was formed by Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan. It brings together legislators and other legal experts and focuses on legal reform. When we started, Michigan was ranked very poorly in terms of its human trafficking laws. The laws were outdated, and prosecutions were still continuing against teenagers arrested for prostitution.  Since the Commission’s formation, there has been significant improvement in the quality of Michigan’s laws. [For more on Human Trafficking in Michigan, visit the VS. State Guide.]

Implementing those laws is the work of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force and its many members. The Task Force has about 90 members, mostly representing organizations in law enforcement and victim services. It meets monthly and focuses on operations as well as how these groups can work together to combat trafficking and serve its victims.

Mr. Johnson’s role as Reporter of the ABA Model Policies on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor

Laurel Bellows devoted much of her term as ABA President (2012-13) to fighting human trafficking. During the fall of 2012, she asked the Business Law Section to create a Working Group to create ABA Model Principles and Model Policies on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor.

The Co-chairs, Bill Johnston, Denise Kraft and Brad Newman asked me to be chief draftsman for the Working Group, a position I was familiar with from my legal career. At GM, I had drafted standard agreements that needed to work for dozens or hundreds of suppliers all over the world, so I was able to draw on my experience balancing various interests. I started my career as a lawyer supporting GM’s purchasing organization so I also understood supply chains. The ABA represents very broad interests, from lawyers advising businesses that are wary even of voluntary commitments, to human rights lawyers who want aggressive policies. It took us over 18 months to draft the documents that ultimately resulted in the Model Principles (the higher level commitments of business enterprises) and the Model Policies (the more detailed actions flowing from the Principles). We were able to achieve consensus on the Model Principles, but not the Model Policies, which contained more detailed commitments.

We then took the Principles before the ABA’s House of Delegates, where they passed unanimously. We thought it was very important to show that there were no reservations from any constituency within the ABA. One of the Co-chairs Bill Johnston did an excellent job helping to craft a consensus among these interests.

Earlier this year, we drafted a letter that was sent to all of the Fortune 500 CEOs and General Counsel, asking for support of the Model Principles. We are now in the process of following up on those letters.

Mr. Johnson’s views on the role that law schools can play in combating modern day slavery and human trafficking

There are a lot of opportunities to build human trafficking awareness and policy considerations into law school curriculums so that future lawyers will understand the extent of the problem. Law schools could integrate human trafficking awareness into a number of courses. For example, I incorporated the issue into courses on professional responsibility and business organizations. I also taught a class focused on human trafficking, starting with antebellum slavery and moving into the modern problem of trafficking. The issue also could be addressed in labor law and criminal law courses, in particular by analyzing state laws that may not properly address trafficking.  

Mr. Johnson’s views on how various professions can join the movement to end modern day slavery and human trafficking

It is important to train medical professionals to recognize trafficking. I was in a hospital recently and struck up a conversation with one of the nurses about my work fighting trafficking. Now they are going to train all the nurses to be able to spot signs of abuse and trafficking. It is especially important for EMTs to recognize the signs, because they get out into the community and see people who may never go to a hospital.

There are many other professions that could play a role. For instance, I work in an open office now, and one of my co-workers supervises cable salesmen and workers. Because these people work in private homes all day, they could play an important role in spotting and reporting potential trafficking. So I talked with him about how to identify the signs of abuse and trafficking, and provided him with materials to help his workers spot these signs and alert the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline.

Mr. Johnson’s current role as CEO and Co-founder of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity

One of the main pillars of our organization is Dignity. So many of the core principles of our nation focus on Dignity – from the Declaration of Independence to the civil rights movement to same sex marriage to the recent problems in police relations with the African American community.

Whether you are talking about women or men who are poor, who are immigrants, who are LGBT, who are disabled or who are veterans – you have to treat them with dignity. We have a problem in society when we separate people into different groups so that we can feel superior to them, disregard them, and exploit them.

The thing that bothered my wife and me about human trafficking was the same thing that bothered us about civil rights and racial discrimination. We cannot allow a condition to persist where the law, or the lack of enforcement thereof, excuses people from respecting the human dignity of all people—especially when it amounts to slavery. So this is what we will fight for, the right of everyone to be treated with respect and dignity, and we will use the fight against the scourge of human trafficking to bring that point home on the way to helping to resolve some of the other situations where dignity is not respected.