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Howard Jenkins Jr., 87; First African American to Serve on the National Labor Relations Board

June 09, 2003|From The Washington Post

Howard Jenkins Jr., who served on the National Labor Relations Board for 20 years and was its first African American member, has died. He was 87.

Jenkins, who had a heart ailment, died June 3 at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C.

One of the longest-serving members of the labor board, Jenkins retired in 1983 after serving under six presidents. The board is an independent agency that administers the principal law governing relations between unions and private employers.

First appointed by President John F. Kennedy, Jenkins was sworn in on Aug. 29, 1963, the day after the historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington. At the time, the labor board was considering a request that racial discrimination be declared an unfair labor practice, an issue it had not previously addressed.

Within a year, Jenkins had helped establish the board's policy of refusing to help labor organizations that practiced racial discrimination.

"I think my presence helped the board discover blacks in the industrial work force," he told the Washington Post. "I don't think the board really had even thought about it to any marked extent until I came."

He said labor unions and companies took note as well and began sending black lawyers to NLRB hearings on labor disputes. "I recognized that that person's presence wasn't necessarily essential to the position being taken by the litigant, but I think it gave black lawyers a great opportunity. It didn't influence my actions, though."

Jenkins was a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in the 1960s. His views were variously described over the years as conservative, moderate or liberal, depending on the constituency making the appraisal. Some labor unions regarded him as a moderate, and some in management thought that he was pro-union. But his views on discrimination stayed the same.

He wrote an angry dissent in a case in which the board ruled that a union wasn't guilty of sex discrimination by having separate bargaining units for waiters and waitresses. A federal court agreed with Jenkins and overturned the decision.

Jenkins had hoped to be reappointed to a fifth term but left after the Reagan White House indicated that he would not be kept on. The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations had opposed his renomination, arguing that his decisions favored labor.

In the 20 years he served on the board, Jenkins was the only African American member. A year after he left, he still had not been replaced. The board, meanwhile, accumulated the biggest backlog of cases it had ever faced. A native of Denver, Jenkins was a graduate of the University of Denver and its law school. He worked in real estate for a year and then was a postal clerk while in law school. After he graduated, he became the first black candidate to pass the Colorado bar exam. He did additional graduate work at New York University and practiced law in Denver.

During World War II, he worked in Denver for the Office of Price Administration. He also worked for the War Production Board and the War Labor Board and was chief enforcement officer for the Rocky Mountain states for the National War Stabilization Board. He moved to Washington, D.C., after the war and began teaching labor and administrative law at Howard University.

He also helped draft briefs for cases that forced the desegregation of railroads and schools, including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit.

In 1956, he joined the solicitor's office at the Labor Department, where he helped draft the Landrum-Griffin Act, which regulates the internal affairs of labor unions. Jenkins was soon named a deputy commissioner in the office that oversees Landrum-Griffin at Labor and, in 1962, was named assistant commissioner. At the time, he was the highest-ranking black lawyer in the federal government. Kennedy named him to the NLRB the next year.

After he left the board, Jenkins was a labor law consultant. Survivors include a son, Lawrence C. Jenkins of Washington, D.C., and two grandsons.

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