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Just before Thanksgiving, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association announced they had an agreement that would end the massive West Coast port dispute, a labor-management fight that could have severely damaged the U.S. economy. The man who slowly and quietly brokered that deal was Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), an independent agency. “It’s just a huge contribution,” says Kirkland & Ellis partner and former Labor official John Irving. “He gained the confidence of both sides and he kept them negotiating.” Hurtgen has served less than five months on the job, but his success in such a crucial fight has made his position quite enviable. “As a result of his role in the West Coast port dispute, he walks on water with the administration,” says Harold “Hal” Coxson Jr., a longtime labor partner at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. But Hurtgen’s path was not always so smooth. In 1997, President Bill Clinton selected him as his Republican choice for the National Labor Relations Board. Hurtgen had spent two decades at the Miami office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and became known as a solid management vote on the NLRB. But Hurtgen’s ouster from the NLRB was engineered by conservatives — namely the National Right to Work Committee — who disagreed with his votes on union dues issues. Hurtgen was not renominated to the NLRB by President George W. Bush, and instead was placed at the FMCS. Soon after, the contract negotiations at the West Coast ports dissolved into slowdowns and lockouts. Hurtgen went out to San Francisco in September. Management was willing to have him help, but the union was not. Mediation is voluntary, so Hurtgen went to the union to convince them to let him in. He was in a difficult position, with a r�sum� that didn’t endear him to the labor side, and the added baggage that his former firm was representing management. So over a series of days, Hurtgen faced dozens of union members, allowing them to question and cross-examine him. “I convinced them I could [mediate] in a dispassionate and balanced way,” says Hurtgen. “Nobody comes from Mars. In the labor world, we all come from one side or the other. But then you promise yourself you will be balanced.” The union allowed a limited mediation. But on Oct. 6, talks stopped, and Hurtgen said the parties were intractable. President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, which forces both sides to go back to work while negotiating. Mediation with Hurtgen resumed. For more than a month, Hurtgen brought the two sides together in a series of hotel rooms around San Francisco. He said he knew he had a difficult task — the two sides had a bad relationship, and Taft-Hartley had a poor historical success rate. But eventually, over the course of weeks, he convinced the two to come to a compromise. “I said the best deal possible would be something they agreed to, rather than having something imposed by Congress,” Hurtgen says. “One [factor] was his personality — he promoted good dialogue,” says William Gould, a former Democratic NLRB colleague, who is now at Stanford Law School. “The other was he was able to play off the extreme position of the Bush administration itself. Peter was able to distance himself from the administration. It was a Mutt and Jeff routine that he played very well.” Hurtgen has returned to the FMCS’s K Street headquarters, where the agency negotiates rule makings and interagency disputes, and will be responsible for resolving employment issues between the new Homeland Security Department and its employees. Hurtgen talks of expanding the agency’s reach, to make it a bigger player in areas like alternative dispute resolution. But there is no doubt he is proud of the agency’s achievement in resolving the West Coast port dispute — one of the biggest recent fights in collective bargaining. “It’s a tremendous win for the agency,” says Hurtgen. “I hope it’s perceived that way. It ought to give more credibility to the agency and the role it plays.”

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