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Putting social-activist principles into practice

Matthew Fusco:
Putting social-activist principles into practice

Matthew Fusco seems to be having his cake and eating it, too.
A partner at Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield, he practices a brand of law more often associated with storefront crusaders than with partners of a mainline firm.
A one-time steelworker and union member, Fusco mostly handles union-side labor law. Along with partner Michael Harren, he represents some 60 percent of the labor organizations in Rochester, among them unionized Xerox Corp. workers, the Newspaper Guild, and unions representing plumbers and pipefitters, city firefighters and bricklayers.
For a union-side attorney, the amenities and resources that go with a large law firm are a rarity, says Joseph Giroux, a sole practitioner in Buffalo who represents unions exclusively.
The big firms don’t do it, he explains. “There’s not as much money in it.
Still, notes Giroux, who employed Fusco during the latter’s law school days, he is not surprised Fusco has managed the feat. Even as a student, the Buffalo attorney recalls, Fusco wrote impeccable, almost error-free briefs.
Fusco–a bearded and slightly rumpled unreconstructed 1960s activist who at 50 vaguely resembles the late Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia–does not limit his practice to union cases. He also does a fair amount of what might be called defending the downtrodden, work that he says flows out of a lifelong concern with civil rights. A few of these cases have been local headline-grabbers that have won plaudits even in conservative circles.
Recently, Fusco was in the spotlight as a spokesman and lawyer for the four parish workers fired from Corpus Christi Church in the flap over the dismissal and excommunication of its priest, the Rev. James Callan.
As a newly hired associate in 1988 with a bare two months on the job at Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Fusco persuaded senior partner Louis D’Amanda to let him take a wrongful-death case on contingency for the family of Calvin Green, a purse snatcher who had been shot and killed by city police during an arrest attempt.
A grand jury had cleared the officer who shot Green of criminal wrongdoing. Fusco’s civil action ended with the city mounting a major revision of arrest procedures after agreeing out of court to give Green’s family $600,000, the biggest payout it ever made in such an action.
In a less-heralded court battle, Fusco a few years ago handled as a pro bono case the cause of a woman with a disabled grandson receiving supplemental Social Security income. The woman over a number of years had scrimped together a $3,000 nest egg, which she well-meaningly put in a joint account with her own and her grandson’s names on it. The government cut off her grandson’s SSI and was dunning him for $13,000 in what it claimed were wrongfully made payments.
Fusco won a reprieve for the family.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Telesca says he is not surprised to see Fusco, his former clerk, attracting positive attention for his success in “employment matters.
While Fusco recalls Telesca as much for the judge’s frequent urgings “to get my hair cut as for his mentoring, Telesca says of the balding but still unshorn Fusco: He brought an interesting experience level not found in typical law school graduates.
Indeed, Fusco never set out to be a lawyer and was nearly 40 when he took up the profession. A one-time student of Renaissance literature, he once had ambitions for a professorial career, but threw over a prestigious Ivy League scholarship and stipend to help found a socially active commune.
Later he settled into a solid, blue-collar groove, working first as a meat cutter in Washington state and later in a Chicago steel mill. Had the American steel industry not collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s, Fusco says, he probably still would be in the mill.
Fusco says his deliberate move from the middle class to the working class was founded mostly on a desire to bring his social ideals into a real arena. He loved Renaissance literature but found academia to be too much of an ivory tower.
As a young child, Fusco moved frequently, attending school in several states by the age of 7 before his family settled in Detroit, where as a teenager he marched in civil rights demonstrations mounted by Martin Luther King Jr.
In college at Denison University in Ohio, Fusco–like many students at the time–was deeply concerned with the Vietnam-era social issues. Still, he graduated with honors, won a full scholarship with a stipend to do graduate work, and planned to go on to study Renaissance literature at Brown University, if he could avoid the draft.
By the time Fusco got his bachelor’s degree in 1970, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and the Selective Service had done away with the graduate-school exemptions. Instead, it had instituted a lottery system under which those with the lowest numbers could expect to be called first.
Fusco drew a low number but flunked the physical. It seemed as if he was free and clear, and on a clear track to an eventual professorship somewhere. But though he always had loved literature, his appetite for academia had palled. The air was too rarefied, he says. Too much was going on in the rest of the world.
Around that time, Allan Schwartz, a friend of Fusco’s at Denison, had come into a small inheritance that he used to buy land in Washington state. The idea was to establish an alternative-lifestyle outpost. Fusco quit school and joined Schwartz and a fluctuating group of 15 or so like-minded residents.
The group adopted many of the back-to-the-land practices found among commune-dwellers of that era, Fusco says. They cooperated to build a log cabin and dabbled in vegetable gardening.
Schwartz, who now is executive director of a non-profit organization that mounts a local-history/citizenship program in Chicago schools, says a key feature of the group-living experiment was its involvement in local affairs. Members, for example, helped organize a dairy-farmers co-op.
The commune and the careers that followed for Fusco and himself, Schwartz says, were direct extensions of a set of progressive ideals developed in their days as activist students. Their common aim has been to do socially meaningful work and use the work itself as a platform to educate others.
For Fusco, that meant leaving the commune and putting himself directly among–and on the same level as–the blue-collar citizens he hoped to educate. Though he found the pleasures of rural life beguiling after a life lived exclusively in cities and suburbs, Fusco began to feel the commune in its own way was removed from real life.
“I wanted to work in industry, he recalls, and after a few years the commune kind of fell apart, anyway.
So in the mid-1970s, Fusco and his wife, Peggy–whom he had met on the commune–moved to Seattle, canvassing the city for any kind of blue-collar work. He landed a job as a meat cutter.
After three years at the meat-packing plant, Fusco moved to Chicago and went to work in a steel mill. The move and the career switch were, like his entry into the working class itself, politically motivated. He wanted to campaign for Ed “Oilcan Eddie” Soblowski, a Chicago union official who was running for the presidency of the United Steelworkers of America as a reform candidate, seeking to give rank-and-file workers the right to ratify contracts in a vote.
Soblowski lost the election, but Fusco, who says he truly enjoyed the job, stayed in steel work. He speaks proudly of his move up the plant hierarchy from laborer to crane operator to coil feeder.
The coil-feeder position, Fusco says, was “the heart of the operation. The job, which involves feeding out steel into machinery that rolls a coil into flat sheets, takes skill and art, and essentially sets the entire facility’s production pace, he says.
Fusco made $500 to $600 a week at the job. He would have been happy enough to make a career of it, but the steel industry did not cooperate.
In the early 1980s, Fusco, along with tens of thousands of steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and other Rust Belt industrial centers, found himself out of work with virtually no prospects on the horizon. Theoretically, his magna cum laude B.A. gave him a leg up. But English literature was not that much of growth field, either.
Going into labor law, Fusco says, was not his idea. It was suggested by his brother, Peter, a curator at the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles, who suggested it would be an ideal way to continue his union activism while making money.
Fusco, then 33 and the father of two children, took a night job, and started boning up for the LSAT. If he did go back to school, he promised Peggy, a Rochester native with extensive family here, he would apply in Western New York.
He picked the SUNY at Buffalo School of Law over Syracuse and Cornell universities’ programs mostly because it was cheaper. To put himself through school, he worked as a graduate assistant and over summers in Giroux’s office.
During Fusco’s final summer, Giroux, regretting his inability to pay Fusco what he thought he was worth, sent him to a big Buffalo firm that does management-side labor law so he could make some money.
If I could have afforded to pay him enough, I would have offered him a job myself,” the Buffalo lawyer recalls. It’s rare that I have a conflict in my caseload, but if I did, Matt Fusco would be one of the first people I’d turn over one of my clients to.
It was on Giroux’s advice that Fusco looked for a federal clerkship. Giroux says Fusco was offered positions with two Buffalo federal court judges as well as with Telesca.
Fusco says the two years under Telesca amounted to a business education as valuable to him as an MBA degree. In addition, the clerkship offered him a fly-on-the-wall view of Rochester’s legal community.
Still, Fusco would have needed little research to sniff out Chamberlain, D’Amanda as probably the only firm in town to which an attorney of his particular bent need apply.
Indeed, Fusco’s partner in practice, Harren–who cites the progressive Catholic activists Dorothy Day and the radical leftist Jesuit priests Phillip and Daniel Berrigan among his own influences and who had spent some 10 years developing the firm’s labor group–recruited Fusco to the firm.
Harren, who as a high school student also opposed the Vietnam War and as an undergraduate at LeMoyne University in Syracuse was a volunteer at Daniel Berrigan’s International House organization, says it would be hard to find two attorneys philosophically closer than he and Fusco. Though Harren is senior at the firm, and is technically Fusco’s boss, he regards Fusco as fully his equal.
What Fusco brings to the practice besides his legal skills, Harren says, is a unique understanding of what life is like on the other side of the desk. As a former union man and one-time shop steward, Fusco carries an authority with clients and can show an empathy that few lawyers possess.
Or as Fusco puts it: As a lawyer, I try to put myself in the place of the working man.

3/19/99

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