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PUBLIC LIVES; Lawyer Prescribes: Shake before Helping

Published: February 5, 1999

Publication: The New York Times

By Randy Kennedy

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.

But Mr. Schwartz said his anti-war stance crystallized his thinking, and he knew he wanted to somehow spend his life fighting for underdogs.

At first, making no money in the profession was almost a badge of honor, one that he had seen his mentor, Burton H. Hall — ”the granddaddy of union democracy lawyers” — wear with pride. ”He was the kind of guy who kept his suits in the office and lived in this tiny apartment,” he said of Mr. Hall, who died in 1991.

UNTIL 1986 — when the dissident group Mr. Schwartz represented at Con Edison won the leadership and he became the union’s general counsel — he had never made more than $25,000 a year.

Then suddenly he had a family — he and his wife, Claire, a psychologist, were married in 1985; they had a son, Jacob, two years later and a daughter, Rebecca, in 1990 — and he came to the same fork in the road reached by so many baby-boomer lefties.

”I started to think, ‘Oh, geez, I’m a grownup; I have to make a living!’ ” he said. And for the next four years, he devoted himself mostly to one well-paying client, the union.

When that job ended, he said, he felt depressed and adrift. So he did what came naturally: he plunged into neighborhood organizing, helping form a grass-roots campaign to restore parks in Greenwich Village, where he lives. And this even led, in 1995, to his election as the Democratic district leader for the neighborhood, an unpaid position he clearly exults in.

Still, even when describing the satisfactions of finally having a taste of power, his eyes do not light up the way they do when he talks about fighting for those who have none. ”I got involved in everything originally because I believed in democracy with a little d,” he said. ”No matter what changes, that still keeps me going.”

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