UE Mourns Kinoy’s Passing

September 30, 2003

Arthur Kinoy, a former UE staff attorney, legal scholar and “people’s lawyer” renowned for his creative and vigorous defense of civil rights, died Sept. 19 at his home in Montclair, N.J. He was 82.

All who knew him associated Kinoy with an infectious, buoyant optimism, a boldness of vision and an understanding that the law could be an instrument for social change.

Kinoy was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of teachers. He attended Harvard University in the late 1930s, where he had been involved radical student activities, graduating magna cum laude in 1941. He saw service in the U.S. Army in World War II, as a member of a chemical mortar battalion in Africa and Italy. Following his discharge he attended Columbia Law School, where he was executive editor of the Law Review.


Immediately after law school, he took a job as a clerk with a prestigious Wall Street law firm that represented General Electric. This lasted all of three months. Not long after admission to the New York Bar, he was invited to work for UE. “This was one of the shortest phone conversations I have ever had,” Kinoy would write later. “My answer consisted of one world: ‘Yes.’”

In typical UE fashion, Kinoy was immediately launched into the union’s struggle. “Within a year I had been thrown into every conceivable form of legal struggle: administrative proceedings like the one I was heading to on my first day of work, courtroom battles from criminal courts to appellate arguments, arbitrations, grievance negotiations,” Kinoy wrote.

Kinoy started his work for UE in 1947, as the Cold-War assault on unions inflicted the Taft-Hartley Act on the nation and promoted division within the labor movement. In the climate of hysteria manufactured by big business, the accusation of “communist domination” became a weapon used against UE, then the nation’s third largest industrial union. As a staff attorney, Kinoy helped the union go on the offensive in a fight for survival.

In 1949, with the blessing of the UE officers, Kinoy left the union’s staff to form a law firm with Frank Donner, former CIO assistant general counsel, and Mike Perlin, who had worked for UE in upstate New York. The new firm took on cases for UE. With the ferocity of the attacks on the union, and the intensity of the anti-communist hysteria, there was no shortage of work. The firm’s legal secretaries included Phyllis Lewis (whose husband would later become UE general counsel) and Hannah Leichtman, who later worked in the UE national office.

(Donner joined the UE staff in 1956, and served as UE general counsel from 1960 to 1972. The following year a young lawyer with a Kinoy connection also joined the UE legal team. Coming out of the Army in December 1945, Bob Lewis had intended to become a teacher. Instead, his friend Arthur Kinoy convinced him to go to law school, and later directed him to UE. Lewis worked for UE for 30 years, and succeeded Donner as general counsel.)

In the early 1950s, Kinoy was among the lawyers defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at their trial on atomic espionage charges; he made a last attempt before a Federal appeals court to prevent their execution.


Kinoy worked closely with UE in the 1950s on numerous cases, helping to defeat the government’s attempt to deport Director of Organization James Matles and jail General Secretary-Treasurer Julius Emspak and International Representative Tom Quinn for contempt of Congress. He also was involved in legal action against General Electric, demanding damages for the illegal suspension of UE members from employment and an injunction against the company’s violation of workers’ constitutional rights.

“The real miracle of the dirty decade,” Kinoy wrote later, “was that despite these blows, the UE remained very much alive as a center of militant activity.”

During one of his many appearances the House Un-American Activities Committee Activities representing witnesses, Kinoy felt the wrath of an acting chairman who ordered the lawyer’s arrest for arguing a point of law with committee members. The diminutive attorney was dragged out of the hearing room by three marshals. A photo of that event appears on the cover of his 1983 autobiography, Rights on Trial, The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer.


In the 1950s and 1960s Kinoy was closely associated with the civil rights movement, and with his characteristic boldness made significant contributions to the freedom of all.

The authorities chose to make an example of Dr. James Dombrowski, director of the Southern Conference Educational Fund and one of the few white civil rights leaders in the South; he was arrested and his office raided. Kinoy’s involvement in Dombrowski’s defense led to two landmark legal decisions: Dombrowski v. Pfister (1965) empowered federal district judges to stop enforcement of laws that have “a chilling effect” on free speech; and Dombrowski v. Senator Eastland, which established that the Counsel of the Senate Internal Security Committee was not immune from suits for violations of citizens’ civil rights.

He also assisted with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge at the 1964 Democratic convention. This challenge, he later remarked, “aroused the people of the nation to the understanding that an independent political party of the people, free of the control of the establishment, was essential to any successful struggle for freedom and equality.” Kinoy devoted considerable effort over the years to building such a party.

In 1969, Kinoy joined with William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass in defending the “Chicago Seven,” antiwar activists accused of conspiring to incite riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The same year, Kinoy successfully mounted a challenge to the expulsion of Harlem’s Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, from the House of Representatives.

The former UE staff attorney successfully took President Richard Nixon to court – in 1972, the Supreme Court upheld Kinoy’s contention that Nixon had no “inherent power” to wiretap domestic political organizations.

Despite his prominent legal cases in the 1960s, Kinoy in 1964 had embarked on a teaching career, at the Rutgers University Law School, that would continue until 1991.

In 1966 Kinoy helped found the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) with a group of lawyers and legal workers convinced of the need for a permanent resource to assist civil rights and civil liberties cases.

“Perhaps more than any other lawyer you have inspired generations of law students,” Robin Alexander told Kinoy in remarks at a CCR dinner honoring him. “Your enthusiasm, energy, and ability to inspire are threads that link my memories.” UE’s director of international labor affairs, Alexander has previously served as the union’s general counsel.

Kinoy assisted University of North Carolina housekeepers in their historic anti-discrimination suit in the 1990s that resulted in an award of $1 million in raises and training programs. The housekeepers’ association was a predecessor of UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. UE Intl. Rep. Saladin Muhammad observes that in the early stages of Local 150’s formation, “Kinoy came to North Carolina to participate in a meeting with other progressive lawyers, rank-and-file workers to discuss strategy around challenging the denial of collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers.”

Kinoy is survived by his wife Barbara Webster, daughter Joanne and son Peter.


On Kinoy’s first day on the job, UE General Counsel Dave Scribner handed him train tickets with instructions to go to Cleveland for a National Labor Relations Board hearing.

Scribner, whom Kinoy described as “one of the finest teachers of law I have ever met,” gave the young lawyer “the most important guidance of all. ‘Listen closely,’ [Scribner] said, ‘to the people in the shop. They will fill you in and tell you what they need out of the hearing.’”

The Cleveland hearing was the beginning of a valuable education. The real test of a legal proceeding was not always winning or losing, but “the impact of the legal activities on the morale and understanding of the people involved in the struggle,” Kinoy wrote.

Another lesson followed at the local union meeting after the hearing: the importance of keeping the members fully informed. “This was my first experience with the intense efforts of the leadership of the UE to build a union that was democratically controlled by the rank-and-file membership,” Kinoy said. “As an essential first step toward that democratic control, the membership had to be made fully aware of every development that affected their lives. And this insistence upon rank-and-file knowledge was now being applied to the activities of the union lawyers. No elitism, no professionalism, could stand as a barrier between the lawyers of the union and the people they represented.”

Scribner gave him another piece of advice invaluable in times of crisis, Kinoy wrote: “Don’t be paralyzed by the notion of the eternal life of an idea or of a body of legal concepts. After, the only thing which is ‘eternal’ to a lawyer for working people is the struggle of those people for a better life.”


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