Summary – Oral History of George Cohen: A Career of Extraordinary Accomplishments
By Roger Pollak, Esq.
Based on George Cohen’s oral history for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
I never had a dull day. That has been George Cohen’s mantra throughout his professional career. His outstanding career spans six decades, beginning in 1960 and ending in 2014. The breadth of his activities and accomplishments is truly remarkable. They cut across both the private and public sectors.
As to the former, he devoted forty years essentially to the practice of labor law as a senior partner in the Washington, D.C. firm of Bredhoff & Kaiser, a highly-respected, relatively small (from three to approximately twenty-five lawyers) office with a national practice representing primarily working men and women through their labor unions.
During this extensive period, Mr. Cohen was recognized as a premier authority concerning three distinct disciplines: appellate court advocacy, collective bargaining negotiating, and mediation. In the process, he made unique contributions to the development of federal labor laws concerning the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the sports and entertainment industries.
Mr. Cohen argued five landmark labor law cases before the United States Supreme Court, upwards of 100 court of appeals cases (including 25 or so before this court), and numerous district court cases throughout the country.
Two high-profile accomplishments stand out: Mr. Cohen successfully represented thousands of workers exposed on a daily basis to toxic chemicals in the cotton textile industry. They posed distinct risks of death or serious physical damage to the lungs. The argument before the Supreme Court that carried the day was that the Secretary of Labor, pursuant to Section 6(b) of OSHA, had the authority to promulgate standards that provided workers with maximum protection – subject only to the restraint of technological feasibility. American Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan, 452 U.S. 490 (1981). That success reflected a culmination of the strategy he helped initiate in a series of court of appeals cases relating to worker exposures to asbestos, benzene, coke oven emissions, lead, vinyl chloride, and arsenic.
The second arose in a completely different context. Mr. Cohen represented the Major League Baseball Players Association before then-federal district court judge Sonia Sotomayor in her never-to-be-forgotten decision enjoining the baseball owners from unilaterally imposing a diabolical scheme to completely rewrite the long-established system in the collective bargaining agreement governing the relationship between the parties. That decision is thought to have “saved” the 1995 baseball season – a result that the media attributed to Cohen’s brilliant argument. Silverman v. Major Baseball Player Relations Comm., 800 F. Supp. 246 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), aff’d 67 F.3d 1054 (2d Cir. 1995).
Mr. Cohen retired from Bredhoff & Kaiser in 2005 at age 72. He then embarked on a new career, that of a mediator. He started down that fascinating, challenging road when the judges of this court appointed him to their prestigious Mediation Panel where he honed his skills addressing a series of serious confrontational disputes.
In April 2009, Mr. Cohen received the highest honor of his career when President Barack Obama nominated him to be the 17th Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. After being confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Cohen devoted the next four years personally mediating “hands-on” an array of high-profile disputes. By far, the most memorable was his successful resolution of a dispute between the International Longshoreman’s Association and the worldwide shipping industry – the threatened strike there would have closed both the East and Gulf Coast ports at a cost to the economy of billions of dollars a day.
Apart from the foregoing activities, Mr. Cohen directed his energies to contribute to the education of young law students. Specifically, for many years, he served as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown Law School teaching courses in the Art of Collective Bargaining, the Occupational Safety and Health Law, and Labor Law in Professional Sports. He authorized several Law Review articles and lectured extensively at leading law schools and ABA-sponsored seminars. In recognition of his talents and contributions, the American Bar Association appointed Mr. Cohen as the Union Co-Chair of its first committees on the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the sports and entertainment industries.
In his “spare time,” Mr. Cohen participated on the board of directors of a number of non-profit organizations, such as the Theatre Lab, National Symphony Orchestra, and Athletes for Hope. In all of those capacities, assisting young people in their respective underserved communities was the focal point of his attention.
Cornell University B.A.
Cornell Law School LLB
Georgetown Law School LLM
Cornell Law School Exemplary Public Service (2014), Legends of the DC Bar (2017), Jobs with Justice: Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award (2014), Athletes for Hope Lifetime Hero Award (2023), American Lawyer – 25 Consecutive Years in Best Lawyers.
Mr. Cohen was married to Phyllis for 61 years (she died in 2020); Phyllis was a world-class color woodblock printmaker and a founding member of Printmakers Inc. at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Alexandria. His son Bruce Cohen is an Academy Award winning motion picture producer for American Beauty plus producing Milk, Silver Linings Playbook, and most recently Rustin. His daughter Julie Cohen is a premier documentary film producer and director whose works include RBG, Julia Child, Pauli Murray, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, and most recently, Every Body. Their respective partners are the talented Gabe Cottone and Paul Barrett. And yes, George has one five-star granddaughter, Ilaria.