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Toil and Trouble? Labor Secretary Bill Usery Thrives on Both

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I have the ability to go long hours without sleep,” says Labor Secretary W.J. Usery, explaining how he has become the nation’s best mediator. “I rarely catnap. Sometimes I play gin rummy. And I take a lot of cold showers.” At 52, after nearly three decades at the bargaining table, Willie Julian Usery Jr. from Hardwick, Ga. can proudly claim: “I’ve been involved with over 300 collective-bargaining agreements and had only 11 strikes.”

Usery is earning his $60,000 salary these days. Named to his job by President Ford in January (the 15th Labor Secretary), Usery has faced a period of tense labor-management confrontations. In the final four months of 1976 alone, contracts covering some 3 million workers, including those in the automobile, meat-packing and garment and textile industries, will be expiring, and the Secretary is already at work behind the scenes. Recently Usery’s personal intervention set the stage for settlement of a United Rubber Workers’ strike that had dragged on for 16 weeks. “Bill is an intuitive mediator,” says Malcolm Lovell, president of the Rubber Manufacturers’ Association. “He is trusted by both sides. Part of his charm is that he’s never taken on any pseudosophisticated trappings. We yelled and screamed at each other, but I was really impressed.” AFL-CIO boss George Meany agrees. “Bill’s one of us,” says Meany. “He’s the best mediator I’ve ever seen.”

Usery stresses his humble origins. “I look upon myself as a success for the system,” he says. His father worked in the post office of a state hospital, his mother in the hospital’s laundry. He went to military school and, since he had only two uniforms, his mother laundered one on her job every day. “I was as well-dressed as any kid,” says Usery. After naval service in World War II, Usery studied at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. at night and worked by day as a maintenance machinist at an Armstrong Cork plant. He joined the International Association of Machinists, and in 1954 the union sent Usery to Cocoa Beach, Fla., he says, “for three days to see if there was any opportunity to organize. I spent 14 years there and got into all the national bargaining with the aerospace companies.” In 1961 President John Kennedy appointed Usery to be the industrial union representative at Cape Canaveral, a post he held until 1967. Two years later he went to Washington as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Nixon administration.

With his monogrammed shirts, loud suits and diamond ring, Usery does not convey the traditional Cabinet image. Instead he is a man of rough-hewn charm, reinforced by a bottomless reservoir of Southern yarns, all told in a Georgia drawl and many of them unprintable. They are handy during negotiations. “If you can get people laughing,” Usery says, “they settle down, cool off and start again.”

Usery is a big man, 6’1″ and 230 pounds. Despite his “aw shucks” manner, he is smart and tough. “I was run out of a few towns by the Ku Klux Klan,” he says. “I’ve had a few tomatoes thrown at me when I was speaking. But I’ve never been in a fistfight.”

He rises at 6:30 a.m. in his one-bedroom Washington apartment (his wife, Gussie Mae, and son Melvin, 29, live in Macon), drinks a glass of iced tea, exercises and reaches the office by 7:30. He works 13 hours, then adjourns for a steak-and-potatoes dinner with staff members. Since joining the government seven years ago, Usery has not taken a vacation. “I enjoy work,” he says. He also favors martinis and “10 to 12 seegars a day.”

Usery is not above using gimmickry to get his way. “Once,” he recalls, “when everybody was cranky, I returned to a meeting wearing a big old Avis button that said ‘We try harder.’ ”

It’s not a technique found in any textbooks, but it worked. “I have great respect for economists and all their theories,” says Usery, “but I try to live in the real world.”