The Council of the American Bar Association Section of Labor and Employment Law pays tribute to Bernard Ashe, who recently passed away on his 87th birthday, March 8, 2023. Bernard spent more than four decades as a member of this Section. He was a giant in labor law, both the public and private sector, as well as a dedicated and active member of the American Bar Association and the Section of Labor and Employment Law. His knowledge, mentorship, strong sense of justice and friendship will be missed by many.
Bernard was a trailblazer as the first African American Chair of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law from 1982 to 1983. As Chair, he and the Chair-Elect, Eugene Hartwig, had to deal with the very contentious issues that arose from the politically divisive national strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), and in the aftermath they worked to mend the severe rupture it caused in the collegiality among the members of the Section. They concluded that the future of the Section required substantial structural changes, and their action plan included the generation of useable substantive publications in various areas of practice that could be distributed to Section members. Section lawyers worked together to prepare the publication of Employment Discrimination Law. Soon after, The Developing Labor Law treatise followed. As a result of these early developments, the Section has published substantive treatises in almost every area of labor and employment law with the cooperation and hard work of its members.
His involvement in the ABA was quite prolific. Bernard served on the Board of Governors, Executive Committee, House of Delegates, and ABA Journal Editorial Board. He was a Fellow of the American Bar Association, a life member of the American Law Institute Tribute to Bernard Ashe and an Emeritus Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.
He represented the Section for seventeen years as a Section Delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, participated in the Section Officers Conference, the Commission on the Judiciary in the 21st Century, the Commission on Public Understanding About the Law, the Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, and the Standing Committee on Prepaid Legal Services.
For his many contributions on behalf of the ABA, the profession, and our society, he was awarded the American Arbitration Association Whitney North Seymour Senior Medal in 1989, the Section’s Arvid Anderson Public Employment Lawyer of the Year Award in 2017, Thurgood Marshall Justice Award from the Albany Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 2000, and the National Weinberg Award from Wayne State University in 2001. He served on the board of the Urban League and as its vice president, as well as a trustee of the New York State Lawyers Fund for Client Protection. For this position he was appointed by the New York Court of Appeals and served for 27 years.
He began his legal career after graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1961 and shortly thereafter became an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in its Washington, D.C. office. A couple of years later he accepted a position as the Assistant General Counsel of the United Automobile Workers in Detroit. It was during this tenure that Bernard became closely involved in the civil rights movement and hand carried messages between Walter Reuther, UAW president to the Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the South in support among other activities of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
His interest moved from private sector labor relations work to the State of New York in 1971. He became the General Counsel to the New York State United Teachers and worked in the Albany office, and his work with the NYSUT legal department led to the development of a substantial body of law for school employees in New York before federal and state courts and administrative agencies. He led an in-house staff of twenty-five very diverse lawyers in presenting approximately 90 cases in the New York Court of Appeals, winning important legal victories for the teachers’ union and to assure the importance of labor arbitration.
After his retirement from the union in 1996, Bernard began an active arbitration career and continued his service to the Section. In addition to his work as an arbitrator, he had adjunct faculty appointments at Roger Williams University, Fordham University School of Law, and Cornell University was appointed to be a trustee of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
He was a quiet, very dignified, soft-spoken, modest man and was extremely perceptive in working with others. These admirable characteristics did not hide the great deal of good he did for our profession. In many respects, Bernard was a true American labor law hero.