Our founding partners—Bernard Kleiman, Gilbert A. Cornfield, and Gilbert Feldman—were associates of Abraham W. Brussell, a Chicago labor union attorney. Brussell had been a law partner of Arthur J. Goldberg, who went on to serve as Secretary of Labor, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Ambassador to the United Nations.
When Brussell was elected a Cook County Circuit Court judge in 1960, Kleiman, Cornfield, and Feldman purchased and expanded his legal practice. In 1965 Kleiman was named general counsel of United Steelworkers of America (USW) in Pittsburgh, a position he held for 32 years. In 1976 the law firm became Cornfield and Feldman.
Social Action and Social Change
Our attorneys played an important role in major social causes of the 1960s, working pro bono with the civil rights, open housing, and tenant union movements in the Chicago metropolitan area and seeking to build bridges between those progressive initiatives and the labor movement. Arnold E. Charnin, a partner in the firm and an accomplished photographer, documented Rev. Martin Luther King’s Chicago area marches for economic justice. Barbara J. Hillman, a grand-niece of the labor organizer Sidney Hillman and a pioneer advocate for women’s and minorities’ rights, was one of the first female members of the Chicago labor bar and the firm’s first female partner. Linzey D. Jones, a former steelworker, headed our Workers Compensation department and later was appointed to the Illinois Industrial Commission.
The fracturing of the anti-war and civil rights movements gave conservatives a wedge to divide workers from other progressive forces. Beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s wholesale firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981, corporations and their powerful political allies have waged a vigorous battle to undermine unions and the institution of collective bargaining. But their tactics have shifted. All but gone are such violent struggles as the historic Haymarket Square bombing. Instead, the threat and frequent use of permanent replacement workers have severely undermined the right to strike, and employers have poured enormous resources into combating organizing drives. As a result, private sector unions have suffered. In the public sector, though, where employers have shallower pockets and civil service employees have statutory protections, unions have grown tremendously.
Our Changing Practice
Our law practice has changed with these economic and social trends. Since the 1960s, we have helped develop constitutional doctrines based on due process and the rights of free speech and association to protect public sector unions and their members. We played a major role in drafting the Illinois labor relations acts and handled many precedent-setting cases under these statutes. Our representation of public sector unions now comprises about half of the firm’s work; it includes collective bargaining assistance, appearing before state labor relations agencies, and major state and federal court litigation.
In the private sector, we help our client unions face unprecedented corporate onslaughts. We assist in organizing campaigns that minimize an employer’s ability to terrorize employees with threats of discharge and plant closure. We advise our clients carefully on the possible consequences of striking and help them develop and implement strategies to put economic pressure on employers without risking temporary or permanent replacement of employees. We work to protect hard-won retiree health and pension benefits.
The battles of the past 30 years have led to some promising developments. Many of our client unions have begun to build sustained relationships with their counterparts abroad. Unions also are forging connections with religious, environmental, and civil rights groups and other community organizations.
Recent attacks on public sector collective bargaining have triggered a renewed debate over the role of unions in a democratic society. Together with the steady erosion of middle-class incomes during the past decade, these attacks have begun to fuel a resurgence in the labor movement. Such a resurgence may move us closer to the vision of a just society that has animated this law firm since its earliest days—a society in which all workers have the right to participate meaningfully in economic decisions that affect their lives and to receive a fair reward for their labor.