Date: Sep 11, 2019
Magazine:
September/October 2019

Mike Saqui grew up the son of a union organizer in heavily-unionized New Jersey expecting that someday he would come back home and help union members take back control of their union from less-than-ethical leaders.

Instead, after graduating from a California law school, he met a labor lawyer named Tom Nassif who directed him to a career working on the management side of the negotiating table. “I’m still helping workers by working with companies and helping them be the best employer they can be. It’s all part of our ‘Employer of Choice’ program.”

Saqui’s road to his career path is pretty straightforward. He grew up in Bergen County, just across the Washington Bridge from New York City. His father and brothers were Teamsters and he had a Teamster card as well from local 560. But he had no illusions that the union was being run solely for the good of the workers. “We all knew growing up what was going on with the Teamsters and the corruption that was in the leadership. From early on, I knew I would be in the union movement. I always thought I would come back and help the Teamsters for a Democratic Union take back their union. I was naïve to think they were less corrupt.”

After high school, Saqui headed to Wisconsin and Marquette University. As a member of an Italian/Irish community, it was a natural choice. From there he moved further west to San Diego to get his law degree at California Western School of Law. He kept his union card through law school working as a “casual” to qualify for benefits and pay his way through college. “I knew the system and I gamed it. I worked just enough to accumulate enough days to get benefits.”

It was as he was graduating in 1990 that he met Nassif, who had just completed a three-year stint as ambassador to Morocco. “His nephew was a law school classmate of mine. In those days employment law was very big. Tom Nassif steered me to Ron Barsamian, who hired me on Labor Day 1990.”

At the time, Saqui’s current girlfriend and future wife was working for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and was not keen on moving from San Diego to the Central Valley. And, in fact, she didn’t follow him right away.

But Saqui was convinced. The day he met Barsamian, the Fresno lawyer was on the other side of picket line representing management. “I knew I wanted to work with him.”

Barsamian hired Saqui in 1990 and made him a partner three years later. The two remained partners until 2007 when Saqui broke away and formed his own firm—the Saqui Law Group. He continues to have a huge amount of respect for his mentor and partner. “Big boy Ron taught me everything I know. He is a special person in my life and will always be so. He and I still have a very close friendship. It was just time for me to leave the teacher.”

The Saqui Law Group grew quickly, eventually having offices in both Roseville and Sacramento, with a staff ranging from about four to 11 people, depending on various circumstances. “We have had a 20 percent increase in revenues every year since we started. Right now I have eight lawyers. We are typically in the eight to 10 range.”

He believes his “Employer of Choice” program is great for workers and employers. “Clients sign on knowing that our goal is to make them a better employer.”

He added that employees have choice so he sees two big reasons to become an Employer of Choice. “You’re doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “But it is also good for you as an employer.”

He noted that employers enrolled in this program do not have trouble finding employees and are engaged in fewer worker lawsuits and fewer workers’ comp claims.

Saqui still has a soft spot for the union concept if not unions themselves. “All the lawyers who work for me have to understand the historical context of unions,” he said. “Unions did set in motion child labor laws, equal pay, women’s rights, OSHA. Before there was OSHA, there were unions. The union movement does have a remarkable and robust history.”

He said they deserve a special place in history, but in modern times they are largely irrelevant and corrupt. He indicated that workers don’t need a union if their company treats them right. “I have met some good union people that do a good job. And I have turned down clients where they need a union.”

But he admits that anything having to do with labor—union campaigns, strikes, collective bargaining—is what gets his blood moving in the morning. It is his favorite part of the business and is what he would choose to do every day if he could.

Saqui is very proud to be a member of what he considers to be the “greatest generation of ag lawyers.” He put a number of people in that group including Nassif (“Tom was a badass in his day!”) and Barsamian, but also added Rob Roy of the Ventura County Ag Association and Jim Bogart of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. He then went on and added a half-dozen more names to the list. “I am blessed beyond blessed to have had the opportunity to work with and for these ag legends.”

He also credited Western Growers for finding and educating most of these lawyers. “Ron (Barsamian) came up through Western Growers and taught me the Western Growers way, which is you are on the road all the time.”

The latest wrinkle is that the Saqui Law Group has become a division of Dowling/Aaron, a Fresno-based firm that specializes in providing legal service to business owners. Saqui said the affiliation allows him to bring a one-stop solution to all the legal needs of his clients. Eventually, the Saqui Law Group name will be dropped and Mike Saqui will lead the Ag Labor Team at Dowling/Aaron. He called Richard Aaron a longtime friend who has handled the business affairs of the Saqui Law Group since its inception.

Saqui said the move “gives me a deeper bench in labor” and allows his clients to take advantage of one firm for all their legal needs, including estate planning.

But Saqui was quick to point out that this was not an exit strategy for him personally. He has no intention of quitting. He and his wife, Lisa, who worked for the DA’s office in both San Diego and Sacramento before becoming CFO of the Saqui Law Group, live in Truckee, Calif. Saqui travels throughout California on a regular basis. “Same as I always did, but now I do it by plane rather than pickup truck.”

His daughter, Mickela, graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is a geotech engineer. His son, Brock, graduated from Chico State, and is currently a candidate for the sheriff’s department.

 

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