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‘Mike’ Perlin Dies at 79

A Lawyer Who Fought
for UE, Civil Liberties


Marshall Perlin, a nationally known civil liberties attorney with a long association with UE, died Dec. 31 at age 79.

Born in Manhattan, Mike Perlin graduated from Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. During World War II he was a first lieutenant and navigator in the Army Air Corps, flying bombing missions in the Pacific, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Perlin returned to law school after the war, where he met Bob Lewis, who later became UE general counsel. Lewis recalls that Perlin took the bar examination for practice while still in school and passed it, with the unusual result that he was admitted to the bar before completing his courses.

The young attorney joined the staff of UE Local 301, which then represented 28,000 workers employed at General Electric’s flagship plant in Schenectady, N.Y. Perlin trained stewards to recognize and develop workers’ compensation cases, organized the local’s workers’ comp cases and sought out doctors not under GE’s control.

In 1950, he accepted an invitation from a friend from law school, Arthur Kinoy, to join him and former CIO Assistant General Counsel Frank Donner in a law firm that would battle for unions and others facing Cold-War attacks. (Donner eventually became UE general counsel.) "That law firm was a powerful weapon in defense of the union and others who were under attack," Bob Lewis recently told the UE NEWS.

Those 1950s attacks included the government’s attempts to deport UE Dir. of Org. James Matles, jail Genl. Sec.-Treas. Julius Emspak for contempt of Congress and effectively put the union out of operation through an official designation as a "subversive" organization. Perlin and his colleagues were in the thick of these fights, scoring several key victories for the union.

In those days his phones were tapped by the FBI; years later, in FBI records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Perlin could read his own conversations with other lawyers.

Perlin and his young colleagues also engaged in a frantic and unsuccessful attempt to win a stay of execution for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg two days before their execution on charges of espionage. Perlin then took up the case of the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant, Morton Sobell, and also served as counsel to the Rosenbergs’ children.

Perlin argued court motions that resulted in public release of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents on the Rosenberg case; his work helped change the way the Federal Bureau of Investigation stores documents.

Mike Perlin continued to represent UE locals; his association with the union stretched across decades.

In the 1980s, with financial support made possible by a bequest from another former UE attorney, Samuel Gruber, Perlin handled a request by UE for release of FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Perlin faced FBI obstruction and repeatedly sued to gain access and acquire copies of documents. When the FBI heavily blacked out information on documents released, Perlin would go back to court. "Everything was a fight," noted Bob Lewis. "He was very persistent. And he usually won."

"We didn’t recognize the scope and size of the files when we filed the request," Perlin said last year. Numerous boxes of documents — containing 90,000 pages of FBI files on UE leaders and members — were eventually shipped to the UE Archives at the University of Pittsburgh. Perlin continued to work to obtain remaining material, consulting regularly with UE Genl. Pres. John Hovis on the ongoing project.

In September 1998, Perlin spoke at the "Cold War and American Labor Conference" in Monroeville, Pa., organized by the Pennsylvania Labor History Society. Already ill, he had been counseled not to attend. But Perlin insisted on speaking, sharing with the conference his personal recollections of the severe Cold-War attacks against UE. In particular, Perlin praised UE leaders’ "strength of spirit and willing to fight" for the members during that evil period. "There was great bravery on their part," Perlin said, that "permitted UE to continue."

Perlin is survived by his wife, Loretta Rowe; a son, Hank Perlin, and a daughter, Jan Perlin.

UE News - 01/99

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