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NEWS ANALYSIS/ TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Emissary Brings Years of Experience to the Table

October 03, 2002|PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Federal mediator Peter J. Hurtgen already was being portrayed as pro-management by the time he arrived in California this week to seek a way out of the labor mess that has shut down ports up and down the West Coast.

According to colleagues, adversaries and observers, there is something to the characterization. Hurtgen spent years as a partner at management law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which represents the Pacific Maritime Assn.--the group that has locked union workers out of their jobs in the current dispute.

But the 61-year-old Hurtgen is hardly the cardboard-cutout opponent that some labor critics want to make him.

He is a Republican who was appointed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to the National Labor Relations Board, which administers the nation's labor laws. Though consistently pro-management as a panel member, his views were insufficiently fervent to shield him from right-wing criticism and a decision by the incoming Bush administration not to reappoint him to another full term. He left the NLRB and two months ago became director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

"The fact is he practiced at a law firm that represents management," said NLRB member Wilma B. Liebman, a Democrat. But, she added, "he's extremely fair and knowledgeable" and "believes collective bargaining is the way for labor and management to settle their differences."

Hurtgen did not respond to requests through aides for an interview.

The mediator's faith in the collective-bargaining process--and that of the mediation service he runs--will be sorely tested in the battle over the ports.

The tiny but once-influential agency has been largely bypassed by history. As the influence of organized labor and the number of big-time strikes have declined in recent decades, so has the ability of a mediation service director to pick up the phone, reach a Labor secretary or president and swing the weight of the federal government behind a deal.

Indeed, so thoroughgoing has been the mediation service's decline that it sought to remake itself in the 1990s into a kind of institutional therapist that mostly helps other government agencies work out their relationships with various interest groups.

"Because of the change in collective bargaining in our society, it's difficult for the FMCS to muster the kind of stature and clout it once had," said John R. Stepp, a senior Labor Department official during the Carter and Reagan years who has worked closely with the agency.

When the mediation service was set up in 1947, economy-shaking strikes were a regular occurrence and mediators were like Wild West sheriffs, riding into town to break up brawls and restore order.

"What you want is one of those really gruff guys like [legendary New York mediator] Ted Kheel, who can knock heads and get a deal," said Charles C. Heckscher, a Rutgers University labor specialist. But few such characters still exist, he said.

In their place has emerged a new type of mediator, a neutral broker who encourages various sides to a dispute to talk out their differences and come to common solutions. Hurtgen appears to see himself in this mold.

Besides loss of clout and a shift in agency focus, Hurtgen carries another burden into the port stalemate: He's been on the job just eight weeks and has spent most of them rushing from one crisis to another.

Before diving into the current contest, he tried--unsuccessfully--to broker a deal between Boeing Co. and its 25,000 unionized production workers. Although the workers ultimately settled on a contract, it was only after company bargainers walked out on Hurtgen-led sessions with the machinists union.

Despite such troubles, even adversaries acknowledge that Hurtgen brings considerable talents and immense experience to the fight between the PMA, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

"He is absolutely forthright," said Howard S. Susskind, a union lawyer who clashed with Hurtgen in Florida when the mediator headed Morgan Lewis' Miami labor practice during the 1980s. "If he has something to say, he says it; there are not hidden agendas."

Perhaps as important, Hurtgen has shown a flair for charming those who might be expected to oppose him and offending those who, by all rights, should support him--a very useful skill for a mediator.

He demonstrated his ability to good effect in persuading Clinton to appoint him to the National Labor Relations Board in 1997. But he may have had an advantage over others vying for the post: Hurtgen was Clinton's hall proctor when the two were undergraduates at Georgetown University.

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