Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall Was the Cabinet's Invisible Man and Then the Miners Walked Out

The tragedy of his son’s illness haunted Marshall through the long hours of negotiation

Picking out Ray Marshall in a crowd is not easy. The other day he was somewhere in the lineup at the witness table before Sen. Edward Kennedy’s subcommittee on energy. But which one was the Secretary of Labor, the man who had all the notoriety over the just-settled coal strike?

You don’t mean that cherubic, round-faced little fellow with the outdated plaid suit and the gap between his front teeth? The one testifying about jobs and energy in a low-key, Southern-accented monotone? Yes, that’s Mr. Secretary. So it’s true—the man who until recently was the most anonymous member of President Carter’s Cabinet continues to be its most anonymous-looking member.

Freddie Ray Marshall, boss of some 19,000 federal employees, custodian of a $14 billion annual budget, is a former economics professor whose external colors are, to say the least, muted. (“He’ll never win the Bella Abzug Temper Tantrum Award,” quips an aide.) Yet behind those brown-rimmed glasses lurks a formidable intellect and a steely determination—an inner life that has enabled him to transcend a childhood of extreme poverty and, more recently, to hold his own at the heady, competitive center of presidential power.

No period in Marshall’s life has tested him more harshly than the last two months. In mid-February the bitter, deadlocked coal strike, which threatened to cripple the nation’s economy, was dumped in the government’s lap. The President gave Ray Marshall the worse-than-thankless task of bringing together the two sides, whose internal disagreements made the search for a contract all the more complicated.

Three weeks earlier Marshall had learned that his 15-year-old son, Christopher, was ill with bone cancer. On Jan. 30 the boy’s left arm was amputated at the National Institutes of Health in hopes of arresting the disease. But in the weeks that followed it spread to Chris’ lungs, and a second operation was required. The boy currently is back in the hospital for intensive chemotherapy. When people ask Marshall how his son is doing, he is bravely reassuring: “It’s tough, but it’s going well.”

Throughout this period Marshall shuttled between home in Fairfax, Va., Chris’ bedside and negotiations at the White House that frequently went on all night. His ability to absorb stress and to separate the personal and professional crises amazed his already admiring staff. “He has remarkable self-control,” says Charles Knapp, Marshall’s special assistant, “the kind that most people simply can’t maintain.” Knapp sent Chris a TV screen game and got a prompt thank-you note from the stricken boy. “The family spends a lot of time with the game,” the letter said. “Dad plays it too, but he has trouble winning.”

Until the coal crisis, Marshall had spent an almost invisible first year as Labor Secretary. Then came the frantic (and unsuccessful) White House maneuvers to settle the strike. Marshall took considerable flak after the negotiations broke down and the President was forced to invoke the Taft-Hartley law. Did the Secretary’s performance help or hinder the situation? Has he gained or lost points at the White House? The debate is heated.

Critics say Marshall’s inexperience as a mediator led him to overstate the mine operators’ concessions at a crucial point in the separate-room bargaining. Marshall, getting about as mad as he ever gets, calls this “totally inaccurate.” Defenders say he performed creditably in a no-win situation with near anarchy in both owners’ and miners’ ranks. “Jesus Christ himself could have come in then, and events would have taken the same course,” says Wayne Horvitz, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Says Marshall, “I can’t think of anything I would have done differently. I’m delighted the strike is over. For a while I feared my permanent job was ‘Secretary of Coal.’ Now I can go back to being Secretary of Labor.”

Ray Marshall was born 49 years ago in Louisiana but moved to the drier climate of Jackson, Miss, after his father, a tenant farmer, came down with a lung disease. “We were very poor, so most of us kids worked,” Marshall recalls, “doing all kinds of things: selling papers, peanuts, magazines.”

His brother Tom, a year younger, says, “We were the poor people’s poor people. There were days we would not-eat. Sometimes we did not have shoes. Ray was always the studious one and quite a little leader even then.”

When his mother died, it was Ray, 11, who decided all the children would stay together rather than be split up by adoption. The three boys and three girls were placed in the Mississippi Baptist Orphanage, a decided improvement over their previous life. Ray came under the influence of the head teacher, an 81-year-old retired judge named Harry D. Dale Moore Buffington. “One day I turned in a paper, a bad paper,” Marshall recalls. “He gave it back and said, ‘Ray, I don’t want you to ever write your name on a paper like that again. Your name is important to you. You ought to be proud of it.’ And I never did, because I was determined that he would never say that again.”

Marshall, eager to be on his own, lied about his age and joined the Navy at 15, serving as a radio operator aboard a Command Landing Ship in the Pacific during World War II. He received Admiral Nimitz’ message that Japan had surrendered just hours before his squadron was scheduled to set sail for an eventual attack on the Japanese mainland.

Back in Jackson, Marshall entered junior college, even though he had only completed eighth grade. One of his classmates was Patricia Williams, whom he married in November 1946. They have three daughters, Jill, 19, Susan, 17, and Sarah, 14, and a son John, 16, in addition to Christopher.

Marshall received the highest grade in the school’s history on his comprehensive final. He earned advanced degrees at Millsaps College in Jackson and at Louisiana State before moving on to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in economics.

Returning to Mississippi, Marshall toyed with the idea of a career in politics but was dissuaded by a friend who thought he was too liberal to be elected to anything. “He told me that life was hard for people in Mississippi, and the only fun they get is in politics. They want to be entertained, he said, and all I was going to do was worry them.”

Marshall was a professor at Ole Miss when the 1954 school desegregation decision was announced. In the struggle that followed, he associated himself with Mississippi liberals like author William Faulkner and newspaper editor Hodding Carter Jr. He came under attack from the White Citizens Councils, which called him “scalawag” and “troublemaker.” Marshall stood fast. “There was no segregation in the area where I grew up. Blacks lived all around us. My mother taught us to respect everyone alike, and call them ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ ”

He began to combine his concern for race relations with his interest in labor. “I decided to get into the economics of discrimination,” he says. “Most of the people I knew in my life were working people who had had a hard time—black and white.”

As a professor of economics at the University of Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Human Resources, Marshall became an authority on the disenfranchised—turning out about a book a year, writing monographs, organizing research and joining dozens of organizations.

One of these was the Task Force on Southern Rural Development, which also counted Jimmy Carter among its members. The two men became friends, encouraged by similar backgrounds (“I can talk Baptist to Jimmy,” says Marshall). When Carter ran for President, Marshall served as an adviser, writing position papers.

The invitation to be Secretary of Labor surprised him. He was reluctant to give up the Austin life-style, especially weekends on the family’s 78-acre ranch, where they were raising cattle, goats, pecans and a pet possum. Marshall accepted the job only after putting it to a family vote—and despite the outcome. The family voted no.

“He put a lot of weight on whether he’d really be making a contribution to the country,” explains brother Tom, who works in Washington for the Farmers Home Administration. “He’s not motivated to make a lot of money or shine his own light. He really likes to do something to help people.”

After 14 months, despite his troubles in the coal strike, Marshall’s most dramatic achievement has been to more than double the number of public service jobs funded by Congress. There are now close to 800,000 people in such fields as mosquito control in New Hampshire, aid for the elderly in Florida and aid for the handicapped in California. Partly as a result, national unemployment has dropped to 6.1 percent (down nearly 3 percent among blacks), which is possibly the happiest statistic of the Carter administration’s gloomy first year.

More significant perhaps than the numbers is the impression that government job stimulus is becoming a national policy—an impression heightened by the expected passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill. Marshall has helped steer it through Congress.

He says, “There were a lot of people who thought we couldn’t mount a job program fast enough, that we couldn’t avoid make-work jobs, and therefore we’d have to rely pretty heavily on general monetary and fiscal policies to reduce unemployment.” He adds with just a hint of a gloat, “I think there is very little debate on that subject today.”

Because of his emphasis on jobs, his successful advocacy of a higher minimum wage and his support of the labor law reform bill, Marshall has been labeled a captive of organized labor. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, says he is “one of the few American professors who understands the working people.” There are those in the Administration and on Capitol Hill who find him too narrowly focused, too doctrinaire a liberal. Business leaders, obviously, regard him as “a disappointment.”

But Marshall has been notably successful in getting his programs endorsed by the Administration and through Congress. Characteristically he works hard at it. He puts in a 12-hour day, then takes work home at night. He rarely requires more than three or four hours sleep, much to the envy of his young staff. He delegates responsibility in broad strokes, allowing colleagues great latitude in decision making.

No partygoer, Marshall prefers quiet evenings at home with his family. He is a religious man who regularly attends church. Perhaps the key to the man is his belief in the political power of decency. The black movement is winning against great odds because it is right, Marshall says. Vietnam was a failure, despite our overwhelming superiority, because it was wrong. The words might have been spoken by Jimmy Carter himself.

Ray Marshall’s days as a kid football player may also help explain why the quiet Southern boy is holding his own in Washington. “The orphanage football team never lost a game,” he once told an associate. “No one is as tough as an orphan.”

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