Mediator retires after 28 years and many long nights

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(Host) Federal mediator Ira Lobel is a familiar figure in Vermont labor disputes. For 28 years, Lobel has helped employers and workers reach agreements and avert strikes. In the last several months alone, he’s helped forge new teachers’ contracts in South Burlington and Milton. Now Lobel is retiring.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this profile:

(Zind) Ira Lobel spends a lot of time in Vermont, but he lives in his hometown: Albany, New York. As a mediator, Lobel’s territory includes most of Vermont and parts of New York and Massachusetts. Lobel is one of 200 mediators with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Lobel’s office on the top floor of Albany’s federal building looks out over a freeway and a forlorn stretch of the Hudson River. The walls are decorated with basketball art – including a Norman Rockwell print that was a Hanukkah gift from his two daughters. In it, a group of young boys is arguing about the game.

(Lobel) “The guy on the left, the skinny kid with glasses, they thought was me.”

(Zind) At 54 Lobel is graying, but still trim and fit. He’s an energetic talker who is in motion, even when he’s sitting. Lobel first got interested in labor mediation as a student at Cornell Law School. But he says his job doesn’t require great legal talent. The skills are psychological.

Last winter, after nearly a year of contract talks, the University of Vermont faculty and administration reached an impasse. Lobel was called into mediate. David Shiman was a negotiator for the faculty.

(Shiman) “I think he’s got a good, quick mind and a thick skin. He probably takes some beating from both sides as he pushes things.”

(Zind) Shiman says Lobel brought a sense of urgency to stalled talks and at times seemed anxious for the sides to reach agreement. But Lobel says patience is really the key to the job. He shuttles back and forth between the parties. He questions, he prods, he tells stories.

(Lobel) “A lot of it is just raising doubt and trying to tell them stories that relate to what they’re doing so that they think about, ‘maybe my position isn’t as valid as I think it was.’ And that’s what gets people to move.”

(Zind) The stakes can be high as a strike deadline nears, but Lobel says it’s dangerous for a mediator to want a settlement more than labor or management.

(Lobel) “I’ve used the line, ‘Guys you can go out on strike. There’s one thing that’s guaranteed – next Monday I’ll get paid.’ And that serves two purposes: It reminds me that it’s their dispute and it reminds them that the outcome is up to them, it’s not up to me.”

(Zind) Lobel once kept talks going for 36 straight hours before an agreement was reached. He fell asleep at a meeting afterward. That kind of marathon session doesn’t happen as much anymore. It’s one of a number of changes Lobel has seen in his 28 years.

(Lobel) “One thing that delights me is you rarely see smoking. It used to be when I first started, my wife would say get undressed in the garage and come into the house because I literally reeked that bad of smoke.”

(Zind) Lobel says there’s also been a shift in the issues in play during labor negotiations. One issue has emerged as the toughest to resolve.

(Lobel) “Health insurance is killing everybody. It is just killing both employers and unions. And one of the things I’ve seen change over the last 20 years is the unions used to say, ‘It’s your problem, employer.’ Now, ‘It’s our problem.'”

(Zind) Lobel says even though the contracts he helps negotiate run out after a few years, there’s a lasting sense of accomplishment in the work.

Lobel’s upcoming retirement is really more of a career change. Lobel says he’ll slow down a little, but he wants to try his hand at working for himself.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Albany, New York.

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