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The Saint Louis University School of Law

A Lingering Sense of Justice

Injustice is woven into Michael Duff's personal history. The Saint Louis University School of Law professor is the grandson of a Kentucky coal miner who died of black lung disease, his family neither compensated by the mine operator nor aided by worker protection organizations that would come into existence a few years later. Duff has dedicated his career to studying justice in the workplace and the legal system's treatment of workers injured in their line of duty.

Michael Duff, J.D., grew up tough. Born in California, he and his family moved to the metro Boston area when Duff was a child, and then, at 13 years old, they moved to Philadelphia. “I was a working-class kid,” said Duff, now a professor in the Saint Louis University School of Law and a fellow with the SLU Research Institute.

“It was a very blue-collar environment. I was a street fighter.”

Duff’s self-described “hardscrabble” upbringing was preceded by a family history that sowed the seeds of his focus as a legal scholar — workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety chief among them. Duff’s grandfather was a coal miner in Kentucky who contracted black lung and died when Duff was only 10 years old.

“I wasn’t around him as much as he was dying, but I would hear reports as his black lung worsened,” Duff said. “He died by all accounts a horrible death.”

Not only did Duff’s grandfather die due to the dangerous and unhealthy work conditions to which he was subjected, he was neither compensated by the mining company nor benefited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), bodies that were created after his passing.

These injustices stuck with Duff.

“Even as a kid, I thought to myself, they put him in the ground until he died. And it was perfectly lawful to do it,” Duff recalled. “It’s something I never recovered from in terms of my evolving thinking about workplaces. I had that story emblazoned within me that I never quite lost.”

He progressed through his own working-class career as a union fleet-service agent at U.S. Air in Philadelphia as he completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. A mentor there convinced Duff to alter his plan to continue union work and pursue further education.

“Just on a lark, I applied to the top 10 law schools [in the country],” he said. He was accepted to all but one of them.

“One day I’m working on the tarmac in the 100-degree heat in the Philadelphia afternoon, and the next Monday, I’m at Harvard Law School,” Duff said. “That was quite a transition.”

At Harvard, Duff maintained his focus on labor and employment law, carving out his own program and clerking at the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents. After graduating from Harvard Law, Duff worked at a private law firm and spent a decade at the National Labor Relations Board, focusing on labor disputes and running elections in workplaces before taking a faculty position at a law college in the western United States.

“It was tough teaching there because we didn’t have in our mission statement the idea of justice,” Duff said. “It was almost like you couldn’t talk about justice.”

A job offer from SLU in 2021 changed that. SLU, he said, was explicit about the importance of justice in his study of law.

“To me everything I do is grounded in this idea of justice,” Duff noted. “For example, if I had to give somebody an idea of what my research agenda is, it’s really the idea that embedded in the federal constitution is the right to personal security.”

Duff’s work at SLU has continued through the line of his family’s history with injustice in the workplace.

“I’m very interested in the idea of protecting people from injury in the first place and recognizing the fact that people are injured. It sounds like a fairly simple thing, but it involves lots of money,” Duff said. “So there is a tremendous resistance in people acknowledging that somebody ought to have access to an adequate remedy when they’re hurt.”

Even though he knew little of his grandfather and the trials and tribulations he and his family faced, the generational experiences left a strong imprint on Duff and his scholarship at SLU.

“I don’t know how much I was thinking about those things when I was younger, but now that I’m an old guy and I look back at the experiences I had ... I was really almost sometimes consciously but also unconsciously motivated by a lot of those kinds of things,” he said. “I couldn’t allow myself to be blind to the things that were going on around me in light of my family history.”


Story by Bob Grant, executive director of communications, research.

This piece was written for the 2023 SLU Research Institute Annual Impact Report. The Impact Report is printed each spring to the successes of our researchers from the previous year and share the story of SLU's rise as a preeminent research university. More information can be found here.