A sentimental portrait of John F. O’Donnell, the sage, skillful New York labor lawyer who helped score victories for workers during transit and postal strikes.
The role of O’Donnell, a cigar-chomping, joke-spinning Irishman with a keen legal mind, in the New York City labor movement has been largely overlooked, says daughter and biographer Ginn. O’Donnell rose from poor immigrant to general counsel of the Transit Workers Union during the formative years of United States labor law. His negotiating prowess helped secure pay increases for bus and subway workers that ended the city’s crippling 1980 transit strike. As the lawyer for the American Postal Workers Union, O’Donnell sought to protect retirement benefits and attacked the use of part-time workers amid fears it would erode full-time employment. Drawing on interviews with her father and other labor leaders, Ginn provides an insider’s view of the politically charged world of labor relations. She traces O’Donnell’s 55-year career as he navigates through one tense confrontation after another, wrestling with fundamental issues such as civil liberties and racial equality. Ginn also tries to convey the kind of man her father was—a tolerant human being with “mischievous eyes and a beguiling voice” who was laid to rest in 1993 with two of his favorite things, a bottle of Jonny Walker Black Scotch and a cigar. The book provides adequate historical context, though the objective scholar may wish more anti-union perspective was included. The choice to divide the biography into two parts—one covering O’Donnell’s professional career, the other his family life—and heavy use of block quotes makes the narrative clunky at times. Nevertheless, the book contributes to the body of literature on the rise of organized labor. O’Donnell is presented as a behind-the-scenes champion for worker’s rights who understood the power of united effort, but also that power is only good if it can be used to find solutions.
A flattering yet engaging biography of a legal swordsman who dueled on behalf of the worker.