W.J. “Bill” Usery Jr., a onetime factory worker and union activist who became a widely respected labor-management troubleshooter, serving as President Gerald Ford’s secretary of labor, hammering out a novel joint venture between U.S. and Japanese automakers and attempting to mediate the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball players’ strike, died Dec. 10 in Eatonton, Ga. He was 92.
The cause was a heart ailment, said his granddaughter, Laurie Morrissey. He died at an assisted-living home near his residence in Milledgeville, Ga.
Mr. Usery — burly, blue-eyed, snowy-haired and with the soft lilt of his native Georgia — helped resolve hundreds of labor contract disputes involving auto, trucking, airline, education and postal workers. Theodore W. Kheel, the noted labor peacemaker, once told the New York Times that Mr. Usery “has been the most successful mediator in the country’s history.”
Labor leaders, as well as many in management, saw Mr. Usery as a patient, sometimes wily facilitator of trust where it had been absent and of compromise where it was desperately needed. One AFL-CIO union leader described him to The Washington Post in 1976 as “a country slicker” who masked his brainpower behind a rustic persona and his ever-present cigar.
At various times, to various parties, he appealed to the national interest, to business interests and to workers’ interests to resolve labor-management quarrels. He said that he was willing to take any flak if it served the negotiating process.
“If they want to make me into a pissing post, that’s okay if it’s necessary for a settlement,” he once quipped.
He grew up during the Great Depression and rose through union ranks at a cork factory. The International Association of Machinists rewarded his organizing talent by sending him to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to negotiate contracts involving the burgeoning aerospace industry. He also tried to integrate unions in the South. At one Florida mill, he recalled, “I was run out of town by the Ku Klux Klan for proposing to hold a meeting with blacks and whites.”
In the 1960s, he represented the union on a presidential committee involving labor at missile sites, a position that raised his profile with political leaders of all stripes. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, installed Mr. Usery, a Democrat, as assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations.
Mr. Usery was credited with helping avert national railway shutdowns and shortening strikes through his shrewdness in calling all parties back to negotiations, often held around-the-clock.
Recalling a 1973 teachers strike in Philadelphia, a colleague recounted to The Post how Mr. Usery used exhaustion to his advantage as a mediator: “When they were really on the ropes, he said, ‘Okay we need to take a break. Everybody go back home, have a shower and get something to eat — and meet back here in two hours.’ When they got back he said, ‘Now we’re not going to have any more of that 36-hour stuff, are we?’ The strike was settled in another three hours.”
In 1971, he helped hammer out the first collective bargaining agreement — covering 650,000 employees among seven unions — in the newly created, semiautonomous U.S. Postal Service.
In 1973, Mr. Usery was named director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, effectively the government’s top labor mediator. The next year, he successfully mediated the National Football League preseason strike and, in a round of marathon sessions, also helped shape compromises that ended a 13-month walkout of mine workers in Harlan County, Ky.
Although he spent years with an administration viewed as business-friendly, Mr. Usery retained the confidence of union leaders. In 1973, the aging AFL-CIO President George Meany recruited Mr. Usery as his No. 3 in the organization — putting Mr. Usery on a path to succeed him. Mr. Usery accepted, then reversed himself at the personal urging of Nixon.
Mr. Usery briefly held the position of Labor secretary under Ford before the administration was swept out of office in the 1976 election. Mr. Usery then formed a self-titled consulting business in the Washington area, which he operated until 2004.
In an era of shuttering auto plants and increased competition from Japanese carmakers, Mr. Usery was instrumental in drafting an agreement in the early 1980s between the United Automobile Workers union and a joint production company formed by General Motors and Toyota.
A closed GM plant in Fremont, Calif., reopened as New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. Based on a new contract — which addressed GM’s problems turning out quality small cars and Toyota’s headaches over congressionally mandated import restrictions — the factory became a model for subsequent efforts around the country.
In October 1994, the Clinton White House asked Mr. Usery to serve as a federal mediator in the months-old baseball work stoppage. The simmering distrust between players and owners brought the cancellation of the remainder of the 1994 season and the World Series that year.
The 232-day conflict stemmed from a decision by team owners to enforce salary caps on players and limit free agency. The impasse remained until then-federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, issued an injunction that ended the strike and prevented the owners from unilaterally creating dramatic new work rules. It proved one of the few times in Mr. Usery’s career when he was unable to lead his parties to a settlement.
Willie Julian Usery Jr. — his surname was pronounced US-er-ee — was born in Hardwick, Ga., on Dec. 21, 1923. His parents worked at a state hospital, his father as a postal clerk and his mother as a nurses’ aide and laundry room attendant.
He served in the Navy aboard a repair vessel in the Pacific during World War II, then returned to Georgia after his discharge and was hired at the cork company. He took night classes to earn a law degree but left school as his union activism deepened.
He was married to Gussie Mae Smith from 1942 until her death in 2005. The next year, he married Fran Pardee. Besides his wife, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Melvin Usery of Milledgeville; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Usery once told The Post that he amassed an arsenal of jokes to dole out in tense negotiations. One involved a hapless football team facing off against the powerhouse Georgia Tech. With every play, the team lost 10 yards, and a man shouted repeatedly from the bleachers, “Give Calhoun the ball!” in the hope that the player might finally break the Tech defense.
Calhoun never got the ball, and the team kept losing 10 yards at a time. Calhoun walked over to the stands, spotted the man yelling his name and stated firmly, “Calhoun don’t want that ball.”
“There have been several times,” Mr. Usery remarked, as he wrestled with yet another dispute, “when I wasn’t sure I wanted that ball.”
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