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Duane B. Beeson


San Francisco labor lawyer Duane B. Beeson died July 3, 2021, at peace in his home in Belvedere, California. He was age 98.


Duane is survived by three children, Craig (Vancouver, WA), Todd (Bolinas, CA), Kim (Seattle, WA), and two grandchildren, Brooke Noel (Seattle, WA) and Cora (Vancouver, WA).


Born in Berkeley on September 9, 1922, Duane grew up during the depths of the Great Depression, graduating from Berkeley High School where he was on the track team and met his wife of fifty-four years, Coni. After attending Lafayette College in Pennsylvania (perhaps as the only native Californian ever to graduate from that small college) Duane saw combat as a sergeant in the 13th Armored Division, known as “The Black Cats,” in the final push through Germany during WWII. He later recalled receiving his diploma from Lafayette while sitting in a Sherman tank in a German village.


After the war, Duane went to Harvard Law School on the GI Bill and in 1948 returned to California to clerk for Judge William E. Orr of the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After his clerkship and marriage to Coni, he headed back to the East Coast and joined the National Labor Relations Board’s Division of Enforcement in Washington D.C., representing the board in the federal courts of appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing many of the foundational cases of federal labor law. In 1961, Coni and Duane returned home to the Bay Area for good and Duane joined the San Francisco labor law firm Neyhart & Grodin (through various splits and regroupings, now the firm Beeson, Tayer & Bodine), where he represented unions for over sixty years.


Somehow, while working seven days a week, Duane also managed upon returning to the Bay Area to find time to build a house in Belvedere, using California redwood salvaged from a dismantled bridge. As a partner at the firm that would eventually bear his name, for over six decades Duane represented many unions, but it was his work on behalf of the Teamsters Union that was the core of his legal career. Duane litigated cases and labor arbitrations in all of the many industries organized by the Teamsters, from freight to UPS, dairy, bakery, beverage, food processing, warehousing, newspapers, construction and ready-mix. If you ever received a package, drank a beer or a glass of milk, picked up a newspaper from your front door, or stood on a concrete floor in Northern California, the workers responsible for getting you that package, beverage or newspaper, or pouring that concrete, owed much of their wages and benefits to Duane’s work as a union lawyer.


In 1964 as opposition was beginning to the Vietnam War, Duane represented a member of the San Francisco painters union who sought conscientious-objector status but was denied because the law recognized conscientious objectors only if they had “a specific religious training or belief that is related to a Supreme Being.” Duane’s client was on record as not believing in God and Duane argued that the requirement that you must believe in a “Supreme Being” to qualify as a conscientious objector was unconstitutional. Arguing the other side of the case was Duane’s former labor law professor Archibald Cox. A unanimous Supreme Court agreed with Duane (U.S. v. Seeger, 1965). Some years later Duane’s oldest son became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.


A dedicated runner, gardener, skier, and back packer, Duane occasionally left the office to travel with Coni. He was an ardent reader with a quick wit and sharp intellect. Upon hearing of his death Duane’s old friend and former law partner, former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin wrote the following:


“It was my privilege to know him, a person of uncommon decency and reason who dedicated his enormous talent throughout his time on earth to constructing a cathedral of principles in the service of justice and the common man.”


The family intends to hold a private funeral, and a public memorial is planned for September. Donations in Duane’s memory can be made to the Peggy Browning Fund, 100 S. Broad St., Suite 1208, Philadelphia, PA 19110 or at www.peggiebrowningfund.org; the fund’s mission is to educate and inspire the next generation of advocates for workplace justice.

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