Dec. 15, 2021 – Looking back, Marshall Gratz’s career in labor law seems predestined.
His father and his uncle were lawyers in Milwaukee, with union clients that included machinists, molders, and inside operating engineers – the workers who helped make the Cream City an industrial powerhouse.
Gratz’s father died when he was three years old. Gratz grew up on Milwaukee’s north side, where he attended Rufus King High School. His father’s and uncle’s careers prompted Gratz to study labor economics at U.W.-Milwaukee, then apply to law schools.
“I was pleased to be accepted at Wisconsin and Harvard,” Gratz said. “As far as I know, I’m still on the waiting list at Yale.”
The Paper Chase
At Harvard University, Gratz took two labor law courses and cross registered in labor relations classes at the Harvard Graduate School of Business.
“They were taught by nationally-known arbitrators,” Gratz said of the business school classes. “I gained a great deal of respect for arbitrators and arbitration.”
Gratz graduated from Harvard in 1971, two years before the film “The Paper Chase,” a dramatization of life as a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, was released. Gratz said the cutthroat environment portrayed in the film wasn’t far from the truth.
“I did not sleep a wink the night before a practice exam that had no effect on my grades. Didn’t sleep a wink! And there were classmates who would leave the lights on, to lead others to think that they were studying all night even though they were going to sleep.”
Right Place, Right Time
Gratz left the Harvard campus in the spring of 1971 with an offer from a Chicago law firm in hand. He began studying for the Wisconsin and Illinois bar exams.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
The Wisconsin exam was administered inside the mausoleum-like confines of the Masonic Temple in downtown Madison.
“All 85 people were in the same room, but only 10 of us were typing,” said Gratz. “So, those poor people who were handwriting their answers had to listen to the clacking of our typewriters, and they gave use some fairly dirty looks because I don’t think they appreciated the irritation of the clacking.”
His labor law concentration was of little help on the exam, Gratz said.
“The only question that had anything to do with labor law was one about federalism – a fact situation that started at the National Labor Relations Board but could have arisen at any federal agency.”
When Gratz learned that he had passed the Wisconsin bar exam – and when he saw the effect a death in the family had on his mother – he decided to look for a job in Milwaukee instead of joining the firm in Chicago.
Fortuitously for Gratz, the legislature had just expanded the state’s public employment relations statute and authorized new positions at the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC). WERC was responsible for administering the expanded statutes, as well as a related statute governing private-sector employment relations.
‘What In the World Do I Do Now?’
Gratz was hired at WERC and stationed at the agency’s satellite office in Milwaukee. He worked as a hearing examiner in unfair labor practice and representation cases; he also served as a mediator and arbitrator.
Most of his cases involved public sector disputes, but he was exposed to private sector disputes too. Such experience at such a young age was invaluable, Gratz said.
“I had the opportunity to learn from the commissioners and my fellow staff members and also had great independence and responsibility very early in my career. It is very unusual to have the role as a labor arbitrator before you almost retire.”
Not that the opportunity was without perils – Gratz remembers the uncertainty that plagued him during his first solo mediation.
“I remember taking the first caucus and on my way between the joint session room and the first meeting with one of the parties, I was thinking to myself, ‘What in the world do I do now?’”
Gratz persevered. He continued to gain experience in resolving workplace disputes. He also gained new perspectives on the practice of labor law and the role work plays in people’s lives.
“What I found about labor law that I liked a lot was that it was very people-oriented,” Gratz said. “A good deal of the job involved people and their relationships with their workplaces. People’s work makes a big difference to them in their lives.”
Gratz said resolving difficult contract disputes was another rewarding aspect of his tenure at WERC.
“There were times when we’d be wrapping up a settlement and someone would say, ‘We never thought we were going to be able to resolve this. We couldn’t have done it without you.’”
But Gratz couldn’t resolve every dispute. Sometimes boardroom or shop-floor politics derailed potential solutions.
“The most frustrating would be where I knew that the party that was refusing to ratify couldn’t pull the trigger because they were concerned that they would lose face or internal political support,” Gratz said. “Everybody knew that the deal was a good solution, but one or the other couldn’t agree to it because of political realities.”
Changes Over Three Decades
Thirty-six of Gratz’s 39 years as a labor lawyer were spent at WERC, either as a staff member or a commissioner appointed by the governor. He spent three years as an arbitrator in private practice.
One of the biggest changes Gratz observed during his career was the increase in diversity among mediators, arbitrators, lawyers, and others who participated in the hearings and meetings he conducted.
“I served on the commission with the first Black woman appointed to the commission. Toward the end of my career, I worked for the first woman chairperson, at a time when women made up a majority of the three-member Commission.”
Another big change, said Gratz, was the steep decline in demand for the agency’s services after the passage of Act 10 in 2011. The act drastically curtailed the scope and effect of collective bargaining for most public sector unions in Wisconsin.
In the wake of the act’s passage, the number of WERC employees shrank to five, Gratz said.
"I loved my work at the WERC, but the job it became after Act 10 in 2011, I would not have loved nearly as much as when I started. There was a much narrower scope of activity. Many fewer people were needed, and I thought it was a good time for people like me with gray hair to leave.”
Giving Something Back
Gratz retired from full-time dispute resolution work in 2011. He and his wife, who’s also retired, live in Shorewood.
He keeps busy by volunteering with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic. Volunteering allows Gratz to stay involved in the profession that gave him work he loved.
“I do intake at the Legal Clinic rather than counseling,” Gratz said. “I leave it to the lawyers who are in active practice and have a better handle on the kinds of issues that come into the clinic I have found that satisfying and I’m glad to be able to give back a little in that way.”
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