Employment Law: Jonathan R. Harkavy

By Irwin Speizer

About 20 years ago, Mike Okun was arguing a labor-law case in federal court in Raleigh. One day, he brought a colleague from his firm’s Greensboro office. He still recalls how deferential the judge became when Jonathan Harkavy walked in. “The federal judge went out of his way to say, ‘We want to hear what Mr. Harkavy has to say.’ There are lots of lawyers on both sides of cases but not many who command this sort of universal respect that he does.”

Harkavy made his name representing labor unions trying to organize employees of North Carolina companies. Among his clients were Crystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker whose fight to organize a J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids during the ’70s was chronicled in the movie Norma Rae, and the union that successfully organized Stevens workers. Harkavy wasn’t part of the events depicted in the movie. He represented Sutton on labor-relations issues that arose after she left Stevens.

More recently, he has spent most of his time as a court-appointed arbitrator and mediator, usually in labor disputes. He has handled more than 1,500 cases in the last eight years — a reflection of his impartiality and analytical style. “It is very difficult as an advocate to see the weaknesses in your own position,” says U.S. District Judge Frank W. Bullock Jr. of Greensboro, who has observed Harkavy as an opposing lawyer and as a judge. “Jon has a very realistic view of the strength and weaknesses of cases.”

He mediated a settlement — approved by U.S. District Judge William Osteen in October 2003 — in DeLoach v. Philip Morris, a price-fixing suit brought by tobacco growers and quota holders against cigarette makers and tobacco dealers. The defendants — including Greensboro-based Lorillard Tobacco, Wilson-based Standard Commercial and Brown & Williamson Tobacco, now part of Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American — agreed to pay $211.8 million, and the cigarette makers agreed to buy at least 405 million pounds of leaf from domestic growers for 12 years.

Harkavy was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. After graduating from law school, he moved to Montgomery, Ala., for a year to clerk for Judge Richard Rives of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Rives, along with three other 5th Circuit judges, wrote opinions that helped dismantle the South’s system of racial segregation and advance civil rights.

Harkavy returned to New York in 1969 and joined one of the city’s most prestigious law firms, Carter Ledyard & Milburn, where one of his jobs was doing grunt work for Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, including vetting players’ advertising-endorsement contracts. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People needed lawyers to do pro bono work, Harkavy signed up and joined a team that brought class-action lawsuits under federal civil-rights laws, mostly against employers in the South.

When his wife became pregnant in 1973, the Harkavys decided to raise their family in a quieter place. He put out feelers. A friend of a friend knew of a job at a firm in Greensboro. The Harkavys liked what they found.

He’s still with the same firm, though there have been changes since he joined. Despite having worked on successful organizing efforts besides Stevens, he admits that unions have gained little ground as a result. “I really fancy myself not as someone who is out to advance a cause but simply to represent whatever clients have come to me.”