Eric J. Schmertz, known as one of the nation’s most relied-upon labor peacemakers that helped resolve thousands of labor disputes, died on Saturday December 18, 2010 at his home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 84.
In a nearly 50-year career, Mr. Schmertz helped end strikes by firefighters in New York City and Chicago, mediated a contract for Connecticut state employees in 1986 and helped settle the 1991 strike by New York sanitation workers.
In the Rockettes dispute, Mr. Schmertz negotiated a contract that ended a weeklong strike in 1967 granting the 49 dancers at Radio City Music Hall a 15% wage raise. Two years later, he negotiated a contract that ended a strike by more than 2,000 cab drivers.
An Five years ago, Mr. Schmertz was chairman of an arbitration panel that awarded a 10% raise to New York police officers.
Perhaps the most contentious one came in 1990 when Mr. Schmertz was not a mediator, but the city’s labor commissioner. When he negotiated a 5.5% raise for teachers, critics contended that he was not a tough enough advocate.
Mr. Schmertz had also served in the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining under Mayor John V. Lindsay, as director of the New York State Board of Mediation under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and on the New York State Public Employment Relations Board under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
He had been one of three impartial members of the city’s bargaining board for 15 years.
Eric Joseph Schmertz, the elder of two sons of Max and Hetty Schmertz, was born in the Bronx on Dec. 24, 1925, and grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. His first ambition was to become a diplomat, though he might have been an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who offered him a contract after watching him play at New Rochelle High School.
But after graduating from high school in 1943 he joined the Navy and served in the Pacific. After the war he resumed his studies at Union College, graduating in 1948. Then, while taking night law classes at New York University, he worked for several labor unions. He received his law degree in 1952 and later opened a private practice specializing in labor relations.
In 1982, Mr. Schmertz was named dean of the Hofstra law school, where he had been a professor since its establishment 12 years earlier. As dean, he began one of the first law school programs in the nation to focus on teaching mediation as an alternative to litigation. He was also a director of Hofstra’s renowned Presidential Conferences, which brought together politicians, journalists and scholars to assess the legacies of presidents.
He never quite gave up on his early baseball dreams. In 1987, when tryouts were held at Hofstra for ballplayers seeking a last chance to prove they could play professionally, Dean Schmertz, then 61, showed up and hit nearly every one of 30 pitches tossed at him.
Although he would never play professionally, Mr. Schmertz had already made his mark on the game. In 1975, he awarded $114,500 to Ralph Garr of the Atlanta Braves in one of the earliest arbitration cases involving ballplayers. He was never again asked to arbitrate a baseball case.
“They threw me out after that,” he jokingly said, speaking of the owners. “Now look at what players are getting.”