From the Los Angeles Times
This OBITUARY is followed by
Mr. Meyerhoff's last article published
December 28, 2008. (Please see below.)
Labor Lawyer Handled Landmark Sweatshop Lawsuit
By Valerie J. Nelson
December 23, 2008
Al Meyerhoff, a prominent environmental and labor lawyer whose landmark cases included the 2002 settlement
of a class-action lawsuit against some of America's biggest clothing retailers that alleged sweatshop abuses on
the island of Saipan, has died. He was 61. Meyerhoff died Sunday, December 21, 2008, of complications related
to cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Marcia Brandwynne. More than a month
ago, he learned that a rare blood disorder that had been diagnosed a year ago had turned into leukemia.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 immigrant Saipan workers alleged a pattern of long hours, low pay and other
objectionable working conditions in garment factories that produce more than $1 billion of clothing annually for
U.S. stores. Recruited mainly from nearby Asian nations, workers toiled in what Meyerhoff called "indentured
servitude." The case was "far and away the most ambitious litigation ever brought involving sweatshops,"
Meyerhoff said on National Public Radio in 1999. The $20-million out-of-court settlement of the suit known as
Doe vs. the Gap involved more than 20 major U.S. retailers. The companies did not admit wrongdoing but agreed
to adopt a code of conduct for the workplace and create a fund to pay for back wages and independent
monitoring of factories on Saipan, an island about 3,700 miles southwest of Hawaii that is a U.S. commonwealth.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, "fought an often lonely
battle" to clean up the island's working conditions and improve its minimum wage, Meyerhoff wrote last year in
his blog for the Huffington Post. In an interview Monday with The Times, Miller said Meyerhoff was always
"trying to figure out how to deliver justice to different groups of people whether they were farmworkers or
immigrants or people who had been damaged by employers. . . . "He had a range of interests, a sense of
outrage and a tremendous sense of humor that all sort of came together with his remarkable legal talents."
Albert Henry Meyerhoff, Jr., was born into a working-class family on Sept. 20, 1947, in Stafford, Conn. Growing
up, he was bullied by the older boys in town, which caused him to develop "an active dislike of the abuse of
power," he later said. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1969 from the University of Connecticut, he found
the first day of law school at Cornell University to be life-changing, Meyerhoff later said. "When he sat in his
first class, all of a sudden he became comfortable in his own skin. From that moment until the day he died, he
thought what he did in life was exactly what he should be doing," said Brandwynne, a veteran local newscaster
and news executive.
Straight out of Cornell in 1972, Meyerhoff joined the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance and made $60 a
week representing farmworkers and the rural poor. He successfully challenged a statute that prevented
undocumented immigrant children from attending public school and sued the state over using public research
funds to promote agricultural mechanization. In 1981, an interest in science and technology prompted
Meyerhoff to join the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. As
director of the council's public health program, Meyerhoff brought countless cases to trial under Proposition 65,
the antitoxics initiative that passed in 1986. Joel Reynolds, director of the defense council's Southern California
program, said Meyerhoff "was always looking for creative ways to use the law." "He was a rare combination of
intellect, passion, humor, creativity and absolute commitment to the public interest, particularly those less
fortunate in terms of economic and social circumstances," Reynolds said. "He had a brilliant mind and a heart as
big as a Volkswagen." To pressure the chemical industry to agree to tougher standards on pesticides,
Meyerhoff invoked a little-used Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act amendment that prohibited animal carcinogens in
processed foods. "The tactic forced a crisis requiring the industry to negotiate," Meyerhoff later recounted,
and led to the Food Quality Protection Act, which resulted in the ban of several dozen carcinogenic pesticides.
Actor and activist Mike Farrell, who was a close friend, called Meyerhoff "a glass-half-full man" who "always saw
the humor no matter how difficult the situation. He was angry about the way people were abused and the way
the environment was abused, but he always saw the hope and made the argument for the positive outcome."
In 1998, Meyerhoff joined Coughlin Stoia, a major class-action law firm. There, he fought for the rights of
Saipan's offshore garment workers, Enron shareholders and many others. "I worked on issues I believe in with
extraordinary people doing extraordinary things," Meyerhoff once said. "What beats that?"
Meyerhoff, whose first marriage ended in divorce, had been with Brandwynne for 15 years. The couple chose
the propitious date of July 7, 2007, to marry. In addition to his wife, Meyerhoff is survived by his daughter, Leah;
his mother Ruth, 92; and brothers George and Alan. Services are pending.
(Note: Al Meyerhoff passed away on December 21, 2008 at the age of 61 of complications from leukemia. He was a prominent Los Angeles
environmental and labor lawyer, and a former director of the public health program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was also
a frequent contributor to The Los Angeles Times' Op-Ed page.)
In Memoriam -- continued below
I HAVE LEUKEMIA. Those must be among the most frightening words in the English language. My particular form of the disease,
called acute myeloid leukemia was diagnosed a few weeks ago. It was a shock but not a complete surprise. About a year ago, I was
found to have a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome, which attacks red blood cells, causing anemia. My form of that
disorder had only about 5% chance of morphing into AML. It beat the odds.
Leukemia was once a death sentence. No more. Through a combination of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, it now is actually
curable. Sometimes. It is a surreal experience, one day having dinner with friends, the next in a hospital bed for Thanksgiving, hoping to
stay among the living. But that's where I am writing this, while having some of the most toxic chemicals known to man pumped into my
There is some irony to this. You see, I am an environmental lawyer, and I have spent much of the last 25 years doing battle with the
chemical companies, including seeking to ban (sometimes successfully) various toxic chemicals, some strikingly similar to those I am
now ingesting. Timing is everything. There is no organic chemotherapy. In fact, I think of these chemicals as my solders in a war going
on in my blood. A war on cancer, if you will. The old industry slogan was right: Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.
I also think of myself as a zucchini in my garden, being attacked by fungus. That's because fungus, like leukemia, works at the cellular
level. It eats away at a plant's cells, eventually killing it. Fungicides, such as the ethylene bisdithiocarbamates (or EBDCs, which I tried
unsuccessfully to get banned as potent carcinogens), attack the fungus and save the plant. Sometimes. But the fungi fight back and
become resistant to the chemical. So do cancer cells.
Chemicals. They are everywhere. They have enormous benefits (see above). Those benefits come with enormous risks. Those of us who
have complained about the latter are often referred to by the industry as "chemophobes."
Rachel Carson, when she wrote "Silent Spring," was probably the first chemophobe, and the industry launched a massive and eventually
unsuccessful campaign to defame her. They are back, by the way, attacking again some 50 years after her premature death from breast
cancer. That's one reason why it is still hard for me to think of them as my champions.
Since World War II, we have experienced a petrochemical revolution in the United States and around the world. Chemical use has
exploded, and we are exposed to numerous substances every day -- in the drugs we take, the toothpaste we use, in the places we work,
the toys we buy our kids, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breath. Benzene, one such substance -- a known human
carcinogen and air pollutant in Los Angeles -- causes leukemia. It makes you wonder.
Some chemicals, like benzene, have been discovered over time to be carcinogenic, but contrary to popular belief, except for
pharmaceuticals and to some degree pesticides, the vast majority of the approximately 50,000 commercial and industrial chemicals
currently being used are not subject to any pre-market approval or testing for long-term health effects. No one is checking first to see
whether they cause cancer, birth defects, or genetic mutations that might lead to cancer in future generations. They are simply out there
by the billions of pounds (last year: 4 billion pounds of pesticides were added to our environment, some but not all tested for health and
This is what is charitably called the "data gap" -- a paucity of information about the toxicity of these products and the effects of our
exposure to them. Without such knowledge, all efforts to effectively regulate them are doomed to fail.
These "gaps" are not secret. They were supposed to be filled more than 30 years ago when Congress passed a woefully inadequate law
called the Toxic Substances Control Act. Guess what? It didn't control the toxic substances.
A high priority for the Obama administration should be a fundamental rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act -- perhaps along the
lines of the European REACH pact that the U.S. has opposed. The REACH pact mandates testing of the suspected worst actors among
chemicals and then phasing them out -- without the full-blown trials the substances control act now requires in the United States.
All in all it's hard for me to feel wam and cuddly about the chemical companies that have resisted reform for decades. And yet, here I sit
(or lie) counting on them to save me from leukemia.
(AL MEYERHOFF died December 21, at age 61 of complications from leukemia. He was a prominent Los Angeles environmental and labor
lawyer, and a former director of the public health program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was also a frequent contributor
to The Los Angeles Times" Op-Ed page.)
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