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Attorney handled 1987 UM nurses’ strike

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

On a Sunday morning in 1987, attorney Robert Vercruysse was woken by a 6 o’clock phone call from the head of the University of Michigan Hospital, who needed a way to end a nurses’ strike and an injunction to get them back to work.

“Patients were at risk so injunctive relief was obtained after meeting with the doctors who had to postpone surgery for critical patients,” Vercruysse says. “Then, through fact finding, we worked to reach a new contract – and, to date, there has never been another strike at U of M.”

That was just one of many challenging cases for Vercruysse, a nationally recognized labor and employment attorney, founder of the Michigan law firm Vercruysse Murray P.C., where he worked for more than two decades, until he joined the Labor & Employment practice group Of Counsel at Clark Hill in January.

With extensive experience in all facets of employment, labor, civil rights, and ERISA litigation, Vercruysse has worked with automobile manufacturers and suppliers, newspapers, news organizations and television stations, distributors, financial institutions, hospitals, physician groups, school districts, and universities. While Michigan is his primary focus, he handles cases throughout the country.

He started on the path to a law career at Michigan State University when he switched his math major to prelaw, obtaining a bachelor of arts in social sciences with high honors.

“When I was at MSU, we had great football teams and now we do again,” he says.

The law seemed a natural fit since he had always enjoyed discussing and solving problems.

“All the way through school and into college, my teachers always said I should be a lawyer because I argued well,” he says. “I’m glad I’m a lawyer because it’s fun to really enjoy your work.”

He earned his juris doctor, cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School, where he made lifelong friendships with professors and students, including Ted St. Antoine, then-professor of labor law and later Dean of U-M Law, who hired Vercruysse to do labor law research for his book.

“Over the years, we’ve discussed so many ideas that I’ve lost count but I can say that I always learn with each exchange,” Vercruysse says. “And the Law Quad is a beautiful place to study law.”

Vercruysse, who served as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, returned to his alma mater as an adjunct professor.

“I enjoyed exchanging ideas with really bright students and learning from them,” he says. “One of my students became my former partner, Dave Calzone, now a successful mediator and arbitrator.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Vercruysse would be drawn to labor and employment law. His grandfather, father, and brother were all bricklayers and his brother served as president of the Bricklayers Union.
Vercruysse was raised and lived in the house in St. Clair Shores that his father and brother laid bricks for and helped build.

“We enjoyed the debates around the dinner table that were never-ending,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed politics and problem solving. Labor and employment lawyers are always working on solving relationship problems – that’s probably why I’m a management labor lawyer.”

The specialty niche has certainly paid off: he has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America since 1987; Chambers USA: America's Leading Lawyers for Business since 2004; Michigan Super Lawyers Top 100 since 2006; Who's Who Legal USA: Management Labour & Employment since 2006; and was selected as a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers in 1997.   

One of his mentors was Bill Saxton, former chairman and CEO of Butzel Long who also taught at U-M Law School. The two took the Milliken v. Bradley Detroit cross-district busing case, winning before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I remember going to Washington D.C. and preparing for the oral argument by finding all the questions that had been asked by the justices in all the busing cases before ours and trying to help Bill come up with answers,” he says.

He also handled the Detroit newspaper strike, ultimately bringing it to a conclusion in 1997 to end the walkout.

“We tried and won the majority of over 100 unfair labor practice cases for Gannett,” he says. “We defeated a 10(j) action by the NLRB and worked with some outstanding lawyers from large firms around the U.S. and settled the contract.”    

In  2008, Vercruysse and his colleagues helped American Axle end the last big UAW strike in the U.S. that shut down 31 GM plants around the country.

“Those negotiations were with the UAW leadership with which I still have a good relationship,” he says.

Beer distributors are among his favorite clients.

“They have products everyone enjoys and we help with their labor relations,” he explains. “Every three years, we need to establish a new collective bargaining agreement that gives me the chance to work with some Teamsters who I respect and who do a good job for their members.”

Joining Clark Hill in January gave Vercruysse the chance to work with his daughter Anne-Marie Welch, a senior attorney in the firm’s Birmingham office.

“She was already a rising star before I came here,” he says. “I’ve always loved helping young lawyers become better lawyers – maybe this stems from my teaching days at University of Michigan. With Ted St. Antoine and Bill Saxton, I had great examples of good lawyers and teachers. I hope I can do the same for Anne-Marie and other Clark Hill attorneys.”

His other daughter, Nicole, is also a lawyer, in Peoria, Ill.; while his son Gary, a U.S.Air Forces veteran who spent a year in Iraq and three months in Afghanistan, is a trauma surgeon and associate professor at the University of Arizona.

“When our children finally finished graduate school, we found that we did make a good income,” says Vercruysse with a smile.

He and his wife Cynthia (Cindy), a former Director of Human Resources at U-M, live in Plymouth, where she is involved with the Special Olympics and participates in Giving Hope – Women’s Giving Circle of Plymouth-Canton.

In his leisure time, Vercruysse enjoys sailing, tennis, basketball, fishing at his cottage Up North, and spending time with his three grandsons and four granddaughters.

As a native of the greater Detroit area, Vercruysse sings the praises of the Motor City.

“Detroit is a great city that has provided this nation with so much – its automobiles; its airplanes, tanks, and other weapons when needed; and Gordie Howe, Al Kaline, Barry Sanders, Bobby Lane, Isiah Thomas, and Joe Louis, all of whom were champions in their own right,” he says.

“I enjoy seeing Detroit’s resurgence– because Detroit is a champion coming back.”
 

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