PUBLIC LIVES; Lawyer Prescribes: Shake Before Helping

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/05/nyregion/public-lives-lawyer-prescribes-shake-before-helping.html

ARTHUR Z. SCHWARTZ loves to count the ways he has made people miserable.

It started as far back as the Bronx High School of Science, where he badgered the administration to ease the dress code. Then at Columbia University during the Vietnam War, he joined the sit-ins, was arrested three times and signed up with a radical Maoist group.

”I always make the joke,” he says, ”that when I put in my law school application there, Columbia sent me a letter back saying, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

From Hofstra Law School to defending workers’ rights, then to the anti-nuclear movement and back again to unions and union reform in the 1980’s, which led him to Con Edison. ”For the next several years,” he says, ”a big part of my law practice was making life miserable for the local at Con Edison.” He adds, lest anyone think he was unfair: ”I was also making life difficult for Con Edison. I’d sue them for race discrimination and sex discrimination and age discrimination and disability discrimination. You name it.”

These days, Mr. Schwartz, who turns 46 next week, is even busier than usual trying to shake things up.

A lawsuit he filed on behalf of dissident members in the union representing the city’s building maintenance workers forced the early retirement this week of Gus Bevona, the longtime union president and one of the city’s most powerful labor leaders. Mr. Bevona, who had exercised iron control over the union and extracted a $450,000 annual salary, agreed to step down if the dissidents dropped the suit, which accused him of improperly using union money to promote his re-election.

And just before that, one of Mr. Schwartz’s clients, a dissident city truck driver in the union that represents New York City municipal workers, won the presidency of his local and began to complain loudly that the union was corrupt. His criticism led to investigations of union officials, some of whom have admitted to embezzlement and fixing a contract ratification vote.

Stanley Hill, the longtime executive director of the union, was forced out in December after the Manhattan District Attorney began the investigation.

Over a lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes this week, Mr. Schwartz summed up his recent legal work with a satisfied smile and some understatement: ”It’s been a good year for the dissidents.”

His opponents, in whom he can inspire intense emotions, like to point out that they think his legal work has little to do with his success as the eminence grise behind such huge union shake-ups.

”In my experience, Arthur has had limited success in the courts, but he is skilled at cultivating and manipulating the press,” said Franklin Moss, a lawyer who has opposed Mr. Schwartz in dozens of cases, including one involving Mr. Bevona.

But it has been a good year for Mr. Schwartz for another reason: it has taken him back to his roots. Which reminds him of another story of making people miserable, albeit in the name of justice and democracy.

He had just graduated from Columbia and he went to tell his father, Herman, an anesthesiologist, and his mother, Roselind, a podiatrist, that he planned to join the blue-collar world so he could organize unions with the credibility that he believed the intellectual left lacked.

”When you announce to two parents who are doctors that you are going to work in a factory after you’ve got your degree from Columbia, they don’t take it so well, to say the least,” he said. And they were probably all the more shocked because Mr. Schwartz’s family had no labor pedigree. In fact, one of his grandfathers was management: he owned a factory in the garment district that made linings for suits.

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