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Bill Usery, 92, union negotiator, former labor secretary

NEW YORK TIMES FILE/1976

Mr. Usery, known as one of the hardest-working civil servants as a mediator, helped negotiate a UAW deal for General Motors and Toyota to jointly run a plant in California

By Sam Roberts New York Times  

NEW YORK — Bill Usery, an indefatigable and gregarious negotiator who helped avert or settle strikes by railway and postal workers, coal miners, and football players as a federal mediator and as labor secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, died Dec. 10 in Eatonton, Ga., He was 92.

The cause was heart failure, his son, Melvin, said.

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Mr. Usery (pronounced USS-ah-ree), a former welder and union official, was a Democrat who served under two Republican presidents, Ford and Richard M. Nixon.

As an assistant labor secretary under Nixon, he was instrumental in the government’s decision in 1969 to grant organizing and collective bargaining rights to millions of federal employees.

In 1984, as a private negotiator, he helped seal a deal among the United Auto Workers for General Motors and Toyota to jointly own and operate an auto factory in Fremont, Calif.

As a federal mediator, the rumpled Mr. Usery was regarded as one of the nation’s hardest-working civil servants. His office trappings — a shower stall, a refrigerator (to ice martinis), and a humidor (lighting a fresh cigar at 2 a.m. boded badly for negotiations) — attested to his laborious pace.

In 1976, when Mr. Usery was nominated as labor secretary after directing the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for three years, Theodore W. Kheel, a prominent labor troubleshooter himself, pronounced him “the most successful mediator in the country’s history.”

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The previous year, he had helped salvage fall football as the mediator between striking players and National Football League owners. But two decades later, after he had been asked by President Bill Clinton to mediate, he was unable to settle the Major League Baseball strike, which ended the 1994 season prematurely.

Because he was universally trusted, Mr. Usery was welcomed at the bargaining table to referee a wide range of disputes, including strikes by Chicago schoolteachers and workers at the ailing Daily News in New York and an illegal walkout by railway workers.

In 1970, Attorney General John N. Mitchell demanded that Mr. Usery, then an assistant labor secretary, disclose the location of one of his negotiating partners, a railway union president who was defying a congressional order to end a strike.

Mitchell wanted to serve the man with a subpoena. Mr. Usery flatly refused.

A former union organizer and negotiator, he metamorphosed from a fierce partisan at the bargaining table to a professional neutral.

“His training as an adversary gave him the ability to understand the other party’s position,” William W. Winpisinger, a vice president of what is now the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said in 1976. Mr. Usery had been a negotiator for him before joining the government in 1969.

“Both sides would tell him how far they were prepared to go,” he added. “Armed with that, a good mediator can work out an agreement.”

Willie Julian Usery Jr. was born on Dec. 21, 1923, in Hardwick, a hamlet near Milledgeville, in central Georgia. His father ran the mailroom at what is now Central State Hospital, one of the world’s largest mental care hospitals. His mother, the former Effie Mae Williamson, worked in the hospital laundry.

Mr. Usery, who used the initials W.J. but was called Bill, attended Georgia Military College Preparatory School from 1938 to 1941, then worked as an underwater welder during World War II building mass-produced cargo-carrying Liberty ships. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and served on a repair ship in the Pacific.

After the war, he was a machinist in an Armstrong Cork Co. plant while attending law school at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., at night, though he never graduated. He soon joined the machinists’ union and became a founding member and president of Local 8.

In 1961, he was named to the President’s Missile Sites Labor Commission at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he also became involved in the civil rights movement.

In 1969, Nixon named him an assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations at the recommendation of a department undersecretary who had sat across from Mr. Usery as vice president for labor relations of Lockheed Aircraft Corp.

As assistant secretary, Mr. Usery helped resolve strikes by railway workers in 1970, postal workers in 1971 and coal miners in 1974.

He was director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service from 1973 to 1976, then special assistant to Ford. After declining the third-ranked job in the AFL-CIO, he served for a year as labor secretary under Ford, helping to settle disputes involving rubber workers and teamsters.

When he left government, he formed Bill Usery Associates, which offered consulting and mediation services in Washington. He retired in 2004. Since then, he had lived in Atlanta and Milledgeville.

His first wife, the former Gussie Mae Smith, died in 2005. In addition to his son, he leaves his wife, the former Frances Pardee, and a granddaughter.

In a 2006 interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Usery lamented the shrinking middle ground in negotiations.

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to get people together to come to an agreement and mediation,” he said. “Today, you go to a conference table, and people don’t even want to get into a room with each other.”