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Looking for the Union Label

Jeffrey Mintz defends companies and collects labor history

Published in 2008 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

The pictures hanging in the lobby of the Atlanta office of Jackson Lewis tell a story.

One black-and-white photo, dated 1914, shows four solemn, barefoot boys lined up against a brick wall near Atlanta’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills. Their pay, according to the caption, ranged from 32 to 50 cents per week.

“The mill owners could get away with it back then because there weren’t any labor laws,” says Jeffrey Mintz, managing partner of the Atlanta office for Jackson Lewis. The firm has about 30 offices nationally and focuses solely on defending companies in workplace law.

The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills have long since closed down and been redeveloped into chic urban lofts. Many of the young professionals who live there today are likely oblivious to the gritty history of U.S. labor law.

Mintz, however, is an expert. Beyond his professional credentials, he collects historical photos, documents and other memorabilia connected to labor unions and employment law. He nods toward an old photo of a group of men sitting on a locomotive bearing a sign: International Association of Machinists, Lodge No. 1. “I was recently negotiating a contract with the machinists union and I was talking to them about this picture,” Mintz says, explaining that the IAM originated in Atlanta in 1888.

“You have to understand your adversary,” he says. “One byproduct of doing this kind of collecting is I know where unions come from, and that helps me to satisfy their demands. I have a great deal of respect for the challenges they’ve faced in the past. It took a great deal of guts to do what they did back then. I value the history that they bring to the table.”

Mintz knew he wanted to be a lawyer even as a child in Virginia. Recently retired Washington labor lawyer George Cohen—who won five Supreme Court cases on behalf of unions––was a close family friend.

“He was my mentor,” says Mintz, who joined Jackson Lewis in 1980, the year he graduated from Emory University law school.

Mintz’s collection began in the early 1980s, when he was rummaging through a box at an Atlanta flea market and came across a copy of a United Auto Workers newsletter, dated December 18, 1937. The headline on the cover blares, “Production Crippled Despite Ford Terror.” The text describes how the union strikers prevailed despite the strong-arm tactics of armed guards hired by the auto industry. It was the middle of the Great Depression and the unemployment rate among UAW members was 70 percent. A photo shows a striking autoworker wearing a sandwich board.

“That fellow from 1937 doesn’t exist anymore,” Mintz says. “He’s white, male, immobile, maybe born in another country and unable to speak English well. His wife was not working. He was patient—he expected to work at one place for 40 years and then retire with a gold watch. Today’s workers are more diverse, less patient and more demanding. And they have the protection of labor laws.”

Mintz’s collection grew to encompass artifacts that provide a vivid overview of the rough-and-tumble history of unions and labor laws. A billy club on his desk is carved with the words “Auto-Lite Strike, Spring of 1934.” He picks up the club to show nicks in the wood, where it was used by strikebreakers to pummel workers. The Electric Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, “was one of the most significant labor disruptions in the country,” he says. Two strikers were killed and more than 200 wounded by National Guardsmen called in to disperse the protestors.

The memorabilia crowd the walls and shelves of his office: a union dues book from 1925; a postcard advertising the once common slogan, “Look for the union label”; a photo of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa being led into prison in 1967; an oilskin sandwich board from the 1930s printed with “Telephone Workers on Strike!”

His favorite item remains the one that started his collection, the 1937 UAW newsletter. “I use it all the time as a teaching tool,” Mintz says, explaining that much of his work involves providing managers with perspective on labor law and history. “Somebody entering the work force today was born in the mid-1980s. They’ve not lived through any kind of economic depression. They’ve always had protective laws. The biggest challenge I face in my work is when management doesn’t fully appreciate the motivations of the unions, and vice versa.”

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