Tough Guy

The unfazeable Robert Murphy

Published in 2008 San Diego Super Lawyers — May 2008

As his helicopter descended into Boron, a dusty mining town in a desolate stretch of San Bernardino County, Robert Murphy saw hundreds of angry strikers surrounding the Borax chemical plant to which he was headed. The plant was home to the largest open pit mine in California—a mile long, a half-mile wide and 500 feet deep—and the scene was ugly. Borax hired Vietnam veteran Special Forces personnel to patrol the inside perimeter of the plant. Every so often, the strikers tossed a snake over the wall at them.

"They needed a lawyer on the premises 24 hours a day," Murphy recalls. "They flew us in in shifts and we'd stay there for days, providing legal advice and taking affidavits after some violent confrontations on the picket line."

This was a world removed from the tranquil campus of Cambridge University, where Murphy, then 22, had spent the previous year on a fellowship after receiving his law degree from Columbia University. The tough, bleak terrain of Boron—Murphy's first assignment as an attorney—was an appropriate introduction to the rough-and-tumble world of labor law, circa 1973.

After the Borax strike was settled, one of the labor leaders died in a gruesome industrial accident, being sucked into a shoebox-size opening in a pulley device that carried huge buckets of ore. "The inquest was held at a local community center and the coroner ruled the death accidental," Murphy says. "But you could tell all the union people thought everyone connected with management was a murderer."

Murphy, now a partner with Gordon & Rees and chair of the firm's hospitality practice group, has seen his 35-year career follow the evolution of labor law, as it changed from a boxing match to a chess game. In years past, Murphy would sit in the proverbial smoked-filled backrooms, negotiating pacts with reputed organized crime chieftains—though he is careful not to call them that. ("Just say I sat across the table from people who made it clear they were capable of all sorts of things if they didn't get what they wanted," Murphy says, with lawyerly diplomacy.) His car tires were slashed and his children were followed—all typical intimidation tactics for labor negotiations at the time.

Now, Murphy points out, the head of the primary union in the hospitality industry is "a very intelligent and able" Yale graduate. "The unions don't need to resort to physical threats, as they did in the past," Murphy says. "They can be much more effective by exerting political pressure."

The backroom deals are gone. Murphy no longer likes, nor does, much trial work. His practice now primarily involves negotiating union deals and advising buyers and developers of hotel and resort properties about how to create unique employment cultures. For Alamo Rent A Car, Murphy cowrote the employee contract-dubbed "Fampact" or "Family Pact"—explaining how Alamo's founders came to the country with nothing, built the company and treated their employees like family. Indeed, the agreement referred to employees as "Family Members."

Later, when a union tried to organize the company, Alamo management called Murphy in to run the campaign resisting the effort. Paul Sorrentino, Murphy's former partner, went to San Francisco to monitor the union vote. After the employees rejected the union by a wide margin, an employee thrust her fist in the air and yelled, "Not in my house!" Asking about her exuberant outburst, Sorrentino discovered that her words were the motto Murphy had used throughout the anti-union campaign.

"He found the place within them that was most effective in bringing home that the union was not doing them any favors," Sorrentino says.

John W. Young, former executive vice president of the Four Seasons hotel chain, "inherited" Murphy in 1994 after Four Seasons bought another hotel chain that used his services. "It's unusual when buying a new company to retain their advisers," Young says. But Young was taken with Murphy's knowledge of the local labor market—and by his unusual attitude.

Murphy's team suggested that Four Seasons eschew the traditional concept of employment at will and turn the employment handbook into a contract of employment, which, for one thing, gave employees the right to arbitration.

"Most labor lawyers would say we were crazy to do that," Young says. "In fact, we had to fire one major law group because they could not understand philosophically what we were doing. If you grant employees clear rights in clear language, the labor relationship is enhanced, not worsened."

The tough New York trade unions agreed to accept modifications from the Four Seasons' employee handbook to the traditional contract. The trade unions in Hawaii, one of the most heavily unionized states in the country, "were baffled that we gave employees rights that they normally had to join unions to get," Young says. As a result, the Four Seasons resort was the first to open in Maui non-union. The employees voted overwhelmingly not to join.

"A lot of lawyers talk about union avoidance and prevention, but by that they mean to mount a campaign when a union election is coming up," Young says. "Bob breaks rank with the conventional thinking, because he realizes people can't be treated like a disposable asset, especially when you're running a service business."

Four Seasons managers were initially worried that granting employees the right to arbitration would cause legal actions to run amok. In reality, the chain averages just one arbitration a year. Young says the prospect of having to go to arbitration forces managers to slow down and "consider where they might be wrong." As a result, they are more likely to work out the issue with an employee.

That's one reason Murphy says if he does his job right, helping companies forge an employee-friendly culture, his services as a lawyer will rarely be needed.

"When it comes to labor matters, he's done everything about a million times, and knows the ins and outs of every subject," Sorrentino says. "He's a genuinely good person who doesn't bear anyone ill will or malice. I'm probably the anti-Murph—an aggressive New Yorker."

But Murphy knows where to draw the line. When a union organized Rose Hills cemetery in Los Angeles, the union negotiators sat down at the bargaining table and made what Sorrentino calls "increasingly unreasonable demands." The Rose Hills gravediggers were already highly paid, according to Sorrentino, who guesses the union simply wanted to use the cemetery to gain entry into the industry. "After a while, Murph just rolled up his sleeves, crossed his arms, and barked out, ‘No!' every time they asked for something." The union struck, and Murphy forced the picketers to remain at a little-used side entrance. Little by little, the gravediggers returned to their jobs.

Murphy appreciates that a strike is inevitable sometimes, such as when a union leader is up for re-election and needs a strike in order to be seen as a wartime leader. "When you take a bargaining position, you have to be sensitive to what the other side can and cannot do," he says.

One of his most memorable negotiations was for Turtle Bay Resort, an 880-acre luxury property on Hawaii's North Shore that had been embroiled in a long-running labor battle.

The protracted negotiation was held in a huge auditorium, attended by hundreds of employees and their families. After it was settled, Murphy says, "There was an enormous outpouring of relief and gratitude. These huge 350-pound landscape maintenance guys cried, and employees came up and hugged me."

That's quite a bit different from the smoke-filled backrooms of old and snakes being thrown over walls. "Practicing labor law is less dramatic now," he admits, "but it's no less challenging."

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