Remembering Bill Usery and the Legacy of his Peers

22 Dec 2016 12:47 PM | Mike Lillich (Administrator)

By Thomas A. Kochan

With the passing of William J. Usery on December 10th America lost a patriot, labor and employment relations lost an icon of the post-World War II industrial relations system, and we all lost a role model as a highly respected mediator and ambassador for collective bargaining.

It is worth reflecting a bit at this juncture in our history on what Bill and his generation of leading professionals stood for. He worked his way up in the field as an effective union representative who was so respected by his management counterparts that one of them (I believe it was future Secretary of Labor Bill Hodgson) recommended him for the post of Assistant Secretary of Labor in Nixon’s Republican Administration. He went on to serve with distinction in two higher posts in Republican Administrations, Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and Secretary of Labor. 

He also made the transition from advocate and government service to become the “go to,” mediator for the toughest labor management disputes of his era.

He and the other giants of his time were respected and trusted by business and labor leaders and by Republican and Democratic Presidents because they saw their ultimate task and responsibility as one of serving the long term interests of the nation by making collective bargaining work for all its constituents—workers and their unions, employers and the larger business community, and economy and society.  Partisan and short term swings in power were issues to be dealt with in practical ways not opportunities to attack or destroy the legitimate interests of the other party. 

When we created the LERA (IRRA) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 Bill Usery joined his peers John Dunlop, Malcolm Lovell, Lois Gray, and Ted Kheel as our inaugural recipients.  We could not have done better.

Paula Voos, Richard Freeman, Paul Weiler, Bill Gould, and I saw live and in person Bill’s mediation skills and the mutual respect he and John Dunlop had for each other when we served together on the Dunlop Commission. From time to time one or more of us in our cabal would raise an idea that our Chairman found to be too “pie in the sky” and not worthy of serious consideration only to hear Bill (sometimes with his other good friend Doug Fraser) chime in with a quip or story that would get John to back off and let the discussion proceed. True mediation: Not endorsing a counter idea or proposal but getting it on the table for serious discussion and review.  And, the night Bill hosted a dinner with us in Baltimore he insisted I try the Baltimore crabs—“best in the world so don’t pass up this opportunity.” I did and am now a fan, both of those crabs and of the legacy that Bill and his generation of true professionals leave to us.

Will we ever again see a time of such mutual respect across partisan and interest lines?  Will we ever again see the qualities of respected Secretaries of Labor like Usery, Dunlop, Shultz, Wirtz, Goldberg, Marshall, and other put to work in public service?  These are among our serious worries today.  Perhaps we should borrow and adapt a mantra from the legendary Mother Jones:  “Pray for the Dead but Fight Like Hell for the Future [Living].”

Tom Kochan

December 22, 2016

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