The Late Victor Van Bourg

The Life and Death of a Lion

Last week, a luminary in the labor movement died in an airport on his way to the bedside of a dying daughter. Victor Van Bourg was a 68-year-old labor attorney who represented more than a million union members in locals stretching from Arizona to Alaska. A legend in his field, Van Bourg was a firebrand from a bygone age when the labor movement carried more clout than it does today. He was part of the movement's institutional memory, but more than that, his efforts, which continued until the day he died, had a major impact on workers throughout the western United States. Van Bourg's law firm played a part in every aspect of union business, from contract negotiations to project labor agreements. Union leadership set the policy for the movement, but it was up to Van Bourg to close the deal.

I had been working on an extended, in-depth article on Van Bourg and his influence, and met with him just a few weeks before he died. We ate breakfast at a coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Emeryville Holiday Inn. Though I had heard the man was large, I was surprised by his size. He was immense, weighing at least 300 pounds. Not quite the sinewy Lion of the Left I had imagined. He ordered soft-boiled eggs and a triple helping of bacon, and when his food arrived he meticulously tore his unbuttered toast into tiny pieces over the broken yolks. When the waitress brought him his cafe au lait, he gingerly licked the cream off the top of the mug.

By way of reportorial ingratiation, I told Van Bourg that my grandfather had come from Poland and spent his life as a communist organizer in Detroit and the greater Midwest. This seemed to please the attorney, who sprang from Russian immigrant roots. “Did you get a chance to know him? Did you get to love him?” he asked. “Because if you respect his views, you are very enriched. Most people involved in politics don't have that.”

He proceeded to tell me how he had watched the labor movement change over the years. “I am totally unreconstructed,” he said with pride. “That may be a strength, that may be a weakness.”

If life were simpler, I could go on to describe how Van Bourg fought the good fight throughout his life. It's a story we've become accustomed to hearing, here in the union capital of the West. But Van Bourg's story — indeed, labor's story — is more complicated than that. The truth is that the labor movement closed ranks during the 1970s and 1980s and began caring at least as much about protecting its top-down power structure as it cared about improving the lives of its members. Since then, trade unions have increasingly begun to resemble employment agencies rather than militant advocacy groups for the working class. Among other things, they have taken on the role of policing dissent within their own memberships. For unions throughout this region, Van Bourg was the legal muscle hired to enforce law and order.

Over the past three decades, almost any reformer, dissident, or revolutionary challenging a West Coast union's authority has run straight into the imposing figure of Victor Van Bourg. As counsel for the unions, Van Bourg was paid to take on any and all comers, whether they were management heavies or union ne'er-do-wells. Thus, while Van Bourg has represented Cesar Chavez's National Farm Workers Organizing Committee, he has also quashed random rank-and-file attempts to clean up mismanaged unions. As he has fought for the right for public employees to engage in strikes, he has also represented union officials accused of corruption, placing himself in positions that appeared to represent obvious conflicts of interest.

I believed Van Bourg when he said that he had remained “unreconstructed” in his loyalty to the union cause. He seemed steadfast in his belief that “the worst union, no matter how bad it is, is better than the best boss, no matter how wonderful he is.”

Still, I can't help but wonder if Van Bourg's cause betrayed him, just as communism collapsed and betrayed my grandfather. The labor movement has changed drastically since Van Bourg's youth; he would be the first to tell you that. I wish he had been given the time to tell me whether he believed in his heart that smashing little guys who complained about union leadership was good for the labor movement, or whether, when he participated in the smashing, he saw himself as nothing more than the unions' hammer.

Van Bourg took pride in his early involvement in the labor movement, before passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a bill that limited labor's ability to mass picket, prohibited secondary boycotts, and restricted unions from making direct political contributions. To him, Taft-Hartley was the dividing line between the old world and the new. No one born after the inception of that nasty law, he believed, could possibly appreciate the full scope of the labor movement.

He also placed great value on his upbringing in a tightknit community of Russian immigrants in Los Angeles during the 1930s. He described it as an Old World communal setting, held together by a common language and culture. He remembered sleeping in the union cloakroom while his parents, both active in union politics, joined in political discussions with his neighbors. “I became what I am from that experience,” he said. “The foundation for my beliefs began there: that labor was noble, that the relationship between workers and their employers was adversarial.”

He said members of the community were viewed with suspicion — and outright hatred at times — by its neighbors. They were called kikes, and told to go back to where they came from. Swastikas were scrawled on his garage door. He blamed the racism and xenophobia on the times, recalling from his junior high years that a group of kids tied a black boy to a fence. Van Bourg cut the kid loose and was jeered for doing it. “He wasn't a friend of mine, but he shouldn't have been tied up.” [page]

In 1953, Van Bourg graduated from UC Berkeley with majors in Slavic studies, history, and political science, then went on to the Boalt Hall School of Law, graduating in 1956. Straight out of law school, he landed a job with the general counsel of the California Labor Federation, where he stayed for eight years before opening his own shop in 1964. The 35-member firm of Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld is now one of the most respected union-side law firms in the country, representing a wide variety of unions, including Service Employees International Union Locals 250 and 790 in San Francisco, and an army of carpenters, roofers, painters, boilermakers, machinists, cement masons, and stationary engineers.

Upon graduation, Van Bourg quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant attorney, combining a bruising attack with a flair for the theatrical.

“He was always a showman,” says William Carder, one of Van Bourg's competitors. “A real table-pounder. But he always had tremendous respect within the labor movement.”

“He would brutally pursue his objective no matter the cost,” says Garry Mathiason, a partner with one of the country's most powerful management-side law firms, Littler Mendelson. “This is what you want in an advocate. I often felt that when he would criticize our firm for the way we do business, it was almost as if he were looking in the mirror.”

Sometimes Van Bourg's histrionics went almost too far. In 1972, he was arrested in Reno for assaulting an ironworker who was testifying against his clients in the local leadership. The case was eventually dismissed.

According to another story, in the early 1980s Van Bourg was representing Oakland teachers against the school district. As talks progressed, Van Bourg kept insisting that the negotiations be held in public, but the district refused. As a final attempt to gain public negotiations, Van Bourg climbed onto a platform in the room and said he would not come down until the public was allowed inside. He stayed on the platform until well after everyone involved went home, and even after a janitor switched off the lights.

My paternal grandfather spent most of his life following a deeply held, all but religious belief in communism. His ultimate dream was to travel, and possibly to move, to the Soviet Union. He was a true believer. He died in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. My parents said they were glad he died before his ideology collapsed in a pile of rubble.

Van Bourg embraced the labor movement for all his life. But if he was “totally unreconstructed,” if he was still devoted to his childhood ideal, then why did he do so many things in recent years that appear, at least on the surface, to conflict with the core values of unionism?

For example, in 1988 he slapped two union business agents with a worthless, million-dollar libel lawsuit after they criticized him in a little newsletter for making a deal with a nonunion contractor. The suit was dismissed after Van Bourg failed to state specifically what statements in the newsletter were supposedly false.

Then again, Van Bourg's firm went so far as to use the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act in suing a group of doctors in residence attempting to disaffiliate from SEIU Local 250. It is true that the group of doctors-in-training was bound by a contract with the local, and dues revenue had been moved into a trust account not accessible to the local. But was it necessary to use a law initially intended to target big-time financial scammers and members of the mob? (The case was dismissed by the plaintiffs; the interns and residents no longer have the same relationship with Local 250, although they are still a part of SEIU.)

And on at least one occasion, Van Bourg insisted on representing a union business agent who faced allegations of “back-dooring” jobs to favored members, until the arbitrators pulled him off the case, citing his conflict of interest in representing the agent. After all, Van Bourg was being paid with union dues, even as he represented a union leader accused of screwing the rank and file. The agent was eventually suspended from office.

When asked these questions in general terms — I had not expected to put my most detailed “hard” questions to him for another week or so — Van Bourg told me to keep an open mind. “An open mind is one with a big hole in it, where the wind blows through,” he then joked. He told me we'd get to all of my questions, but of course we never will.

I honestly don't blame Van Bourg for what seem to be heavy-handed attempts to maintain the labor status quo. I blame union dinosaurs who, over the last three decades, have been devoted to preserving their own power as the power of unions in general has diminished. I'll give Van Bourg the benefit of the doubt that while acting as an attorney for the unions, he was merely doing his clients' bidding, and, as always, doing it very, very well.

Van Bourg's oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. He was in Washington, D.C., last week when he heard her condition had worsened, and that she was near death. According to form, he pursued the objective of returning to her side with brutal intensity. He made it as far as San Francisco International Airport Tuesday night before he died of a heart attack, apparently unaware that his daughter had already passed on that afternoon.

Although I didn't know him well at all, I feel safe in saying this was a man with an unconditional loyalty to his family. This was, indeed, a lion who licked the cream from life's cup. Like my grandfather, perhaps he was just the sort of man who embraced his beliefs too tightly, who was good, by his lights, but perhaps not so unreconstructed as he believed.

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