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J. Curtis Counts; Labor Negotiator Headed Federal Mediation Service

July 04, 1999|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

J. Curtis Counts, a longtime labor negotiator who was the head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service from 1969 to 1973 and was credited with expanding the agency's efforts to settle labor conflicts before they became strikes, has died.

Counts died Wednesday at his home in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles, where he had lived for more than 50 years, family members said Saturday. He was 83.

In his lengthy career, Counts negotiated with many of the giants of organized labor, including Jimmy Hoffa, Jackie Presser and Frank Fitzsimmons of the Teamsters, George Meany of the AFL-CIO and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.

The general feeling about Counts among labor leaders was reflected succinctly once by a spokesman for Meany, who said, "He is a fair, honest guy."

His son, Jay Counts, said his father had a mutual respect for the giants of organized labor. Despite the union's historic problems, he found Teamsters leaders to be men of their word. "If you cut a deal with them, you had a deal," the younger Counts recalled his father as saying.

James Curtis Counts was born Aug. 2, 1915, in Greenfield, Colo. His grandfather was a gold miner and his father was a carpenter. The family moved to Northern California when Counts was an infant and then resettled in Los Angeles when Counts was in elementary school so his father could get a job at one of the movie studios.

Counts attended Fairfax High School, where he was a baseball star, playing first base and batting left-handed.

He went on to UCLA, where he lettered three years in baseball and was an inaugural member of the Bruin Baseball Hall of Fame. After graduating, he studied law at USC. He and his future wife, Virginia Shugart, double-dated with her friend Pat Ryan and her future husband, Richard Nixon. The couples became very close friends, and the Nixons were members of the Countses' wedding party.

Shugart got a job at Douglas Aircraft after college and found out about an opening in the management training program that she thought would be perfect for Counts. In 1940, he joined the firm and was found to have an aptitude for human resources work. In his nearly 30-year career there, he rose to the rank of vice president of employee relations and negotiated all the contracts with the unions the company did business with.

One of those unions, the International Assn. of Machinists, consistently gave him good grades for his open-minded approach to negotiations.

Counts left Douglas to work for his old friend Nixon as head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which was set up by Congress in 1947 as an independent agency to promote stable labor-management relations. In that post, and without clear legal authority, Counts expanded the agency's role in settling labor disputes. He was convinced that it was in the public's interest for the agency to intervene in disputes before they became strikes. He often did this while facing political opposition.

One such case was a strike between nonprofessional workers and the State Medical College Hospital of South Carolina. That brought a coordinated effort with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which found that the hospital had discriminated against strikers, all of them black, and suggested that 12 who had been fired be given their jobs back.

Powerful figures such as the state's Republican U.S. senator, Strom Thurmond, had wanted the federal government to stay out of the dispute. But by coordinating his efforts with HEW, Counts was able to help the hospital officials and the workers reach a settlement.

Counts also seemed to have a simple philosophy in conducting negotiations.

"We must stimulate people to do their own thinking," he said. "I do believe that parties can make the best agreements by themselves."

While at the mediation service, he helped settle a crippling longshore workers' strike on the East Coast that had shut down ports after an 80-day cooling-off period expired. He then went on to reach agreements with local longshore unions in Boston and Texas.

In 1970, his mediation efforts helped end a 95-day walkout at General Electric by members of the International Union of Electricians and United Electrical Workers.

More and more, however, the mediation agency under Counts was asked to settle disputes with workers such as public employees and farm laborers, who were then not covered by federal labor laws. In that vein, Counts wanted all his agency's regional offices to develop expert mediators to handle public employee negotiations.

In 1973, he left the mediation service post--which paid just $40,000--to return to private industry, although he had been mentioned for the post of undersecretary of labor.

He became president of Contractors Mutual Assn., a group of large unionized contractors that was formed to bargain with various craft unions. After that he became president of Trucking Management, bargaining master freight agreements with the Teamsters.

In his later years, Counts did consulting work on labor-management issues. Throughout his career, he was active in various organizations, serving as a trustee of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Society of America; on the boards of directors of the UCLA Alumni Assn. and the Management Council of Greater Los Angeles; and with the Los Angeles County branch of the American Red Cross.

He also found time to watch his favorite sport, baseball.

Counts' wife of 56 years died in 1996.

He is survived by daughters Carol Hooper of Los Angeles and Janis Ocean of Reno, son Jay Counts of Dallas, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The family suggests contributions to the UCLA baseball program. Memorial services are scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m. at Westwood Hills Christian Church, 10808 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

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