On Saturday, Dec. 10, we lost America's premier labor negotiator, William Julian Usery Jr. He died in Eatonton, Georgia. He was 92.
Usery has forgotten more about collective bargaining than most people will ever know. He understood deep in his veins how essential collective bargaining is to the American economy. He was a good man, and a good and well-respected friend of mine, and a man who taught me immensely about how to unravel tension and bring two warring sides together to reach a workable relationship.
In 1974, I first worked with him during national coal negotiations. At that time, he served as special assistant to the president for labor-management affairs. My union, the United Mine Workers of America, had gone on strike. He helped settle the dispute. America got its coal, and the mine workers won strong wage and benefit gains.
Usery had a constitution of steel. We once negotiated for five days straight, around the clock. He was just as sharp at the end of the five days as when we started. He was unselfish and humble. He would come out with a funny story when the negotiations needed it most.
In the 1980s, during the negotiations between the UMWA and Pittston Coal Co., when I was president of the Mine Workers, Usery told a story about two kids. One was a pessimist and the other an optimist. In the story, the adults put the pessimist in a room full of fantastic toys, to see if he’d be happy. They put the optimist in a room full of horse manure. In a little while, they opened the doors. The pessimist sat in the middle of the toys, crying. “Why are you crying?,” they asked. “If I play with these toys, they’ll break,” the pessimist said. This’ll happen, and that’ll happen, he whined. In the second room, the other kid was playing happily with the manure, throwing it around the room and digging through it. “Why are you so happy?,” they asked. “Are you kidding? Look at all this manure," he said. "There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere!”
After the successful end of the Pittston strike, the UMWA presented Usery, who was the super-mediator appointed by Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, with a bronze pony inscribed with a message that thanked him for helping the union find the pony.
No one could match Bill Usery’s integrity and personal moral strength. He was a force of nature. God bless him, his family and his memory.