Former Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz dies at 98
WASHINGTON -- W. Willard Wirtz, a lawyer and labor arbitrator who was labor secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but broke publicly with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, has died.
Wirtz, 98, died Saturday of natural causes at his home in Washington, his son Philip said Sunday.
Wirtz left a Chicago law firm to join the Kennedy administration as undersecretary of labor in 1961. President John F. Kennedy promoted him to the top job in 1962 just one day after naming Labor Secretary Arthur J. Goldberg to the Supreme Court.
Wirtz continued in the post after Johnson succeeded Kennedy in 1963 and stayed on until Johnson completed his term in January 1969. He remained in Washington and resumed the practice of law, often serving on boards and pursuing labor-related projects. His wife, Jane, who died in 2002, was a prominent Washington socialite who was active in political and social organizations.
"If there was a central unifying and dignifying theme ... it was in the insistence that wage earners -- and those seeking that status -- are people, human beings for whom 'work,' but not just 'labor' ... constitutes one of the potential ultimate satisfactions," Wirtz once said in reviewing the six years he led the Labor Department.
In step with the social and economic goals of Johnson's Great Society initiatives, Wirtz's department directed numerous training and education programs aimed at furthering opportunities for workers, particularly the undereducated and the underemployed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 spurred the department to pursue an equal-opportunity agenda, including nondiscriminatory practices by contractors and equal pay for women.
"Willard Wirtz was the consummate negotiator and played a significant role in preventing and ending major labor strikes during the 1960s," Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said in a statement Sunday.
"He was a vocal advocate for collective bargaining. As President Johnson's 'general' in the War on Poverty, he initiated an array of programs to help at-risk youth, older workers and the hardcore unemployed. Long before the challenges and promise of workers with disabilities entered the public consciousness, both he and Jane were champions and advocates on their behalf," Solis said.
The first Johnson Cabinet member to support halting the bombing of North Vietnam, Wirtz said in September 1968 that he would have voted in favor of a proposed plank in the Democratic Party platform to stop the bombing. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the party's presidential nominee, had opposed the plank.
Wirtz had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the war by the time Johnson called him to the White House in October 1968 to discuss a departmental reorganization plan the president had not approved. The meeting grew heated, according to an account published in 1970 by Johnson press secretary George Christian, with the president questioning whether Wirtz actually wanted to be fired.
Johnson demanded and received Wirtz's resignation, Christian wrote. Concerned with how such dissension could affect Humphrey's campaign against Republican nominee Richard Nixon with the election just two weeks away, Johnson sent two aides to persuade Wirtz to withdraw the resignation before the day was over.
William Willard Wirtz was born March 14, 1912, in DeKalb, Ill. He earned a bachelor's degree from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1933 and taught high school at Kewanee, Ill., before receiving a law degree from Harvard University in 1937. He later taught at the University of Iowa and, for several years, at the Northwestern University law school.
In Washington during World War II, Wirtz was an assistant general counsel for the Board of Economic Warfare and counsel to and later a member of the War Labor Board. He also served as chairman of the National Wage Stabilization Board in 1946 and as its executive director in 1951.
As part of a long association with Adlai E. Stevenson, Wirtz was a key adviser during the former Illinois governor's two campaigns for president, in 1952 and 1956, as the Democratic nominee. He practiced law with Stevenson from 1955 until he joined the Kennedy administration.
Wirtz was one of the original trustees appointed to oversee the financially troubled Penn Central Transportation Co., serving from 1970 to 1972. In 1971 he became the president of the Manpower Institute, a private, nonprofit organization that brought together labor and industry as well as government and scholars to deal with labor problems.
Wirtz was married for 66 years to Jane Quisenberry Wirtz. He is survived by two sons, Richard and Philip, and two sisters.