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Obituary: Professor Sidney Kessler OBE

Industrial relations guru who played a major role in the trade union movement

    The leading industrial relations academic Sidney Kessler, who has died aged 89, had a prolific record of public service for over 30 years.

    Modest both by background and temperament, Sidney Kessler was born in Whitechapel, the only child of Isaac and Eva, who had immigrated from Poland in the early years of the 20th century.  With both parents working in the clothing industry, Sidney was brought-up in the Jewish East End, and exposed to a highly political left wing culture. He was regaled by tales from two uncles who had travelled from Britain to fight in the Russian Revolution, while his parents were active in the Workers’ Circle, a Jewish, but largely secular, cultural and welfare organisation. 

    Sidney never turned his back on his modest background. After securing a first class honours degree at the London School of Economics, and inspired there by the left wing political scientist Harold Laski, he took up his first permanent job in 1956, heading the Economic Research Department at the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM represented over 700,000 members responsible for producing the coal which powered much of British industry. His department played an important part in supporting the union’s pursuit of safer working conditions and fair pay, while also leading the creation of a sustainable infrastructure for the educational development of miners, via summer schools and conferences. Sidney made lifelong friends in the union movement and retained a strong connection to it. Indeed, the 1990s saw him working with the TUC to resolve inter-union membership disputes. He married Irene Marks in 1954 after a brief engagement. 

    In 1964, Sidney became lecturer in industrial relations at London’s City University, in 1978 he was appointed Professor and in 1994 he retired as Emeritus Professor. City provided the platform for his involvement in a range of government-driven industrial relations initiatives, including his significant scholarly contributions. City had only recently converted from a technical college to a university with few programmes in the field of management studies. As one of only a handful of academics in this field, he helped establish City as a leading business school.

    While his published academic output was limited, in 1992 he co-authored with colleague Fred Bayliss a book entitled Contemporary British Industrial Relations.Mapping the impact of successive Thatcher governments on the country’s industrial relations, the book unusually became a standard student textbook, while retaining its credibility as a research monograph. It ran to three editions.

    Sidney’s more expansive involvement in national public policy developments while at City was especially noteworthy. He joined a string of government bodies set-up to reform and manage the British system of industrial relations during the 1960s and 70s, a period of industrial strife, high inflation and incomes policy. These included the National Board of Price and Incomes, the Commission on Industrial Relations and the Standing Commission Pay Comparability, created in the aftermath of the bitter and prolonged “Winter of Discontent”, to resolve public pay disputes, between 1979-80.

    While at City Sidney also become a leading arbitrator in the resolution of industrial disputes. He was on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’s (ACAS) panel of arbitrators for over 20 years. He was also Deputy Chairman of the Central Arbitration Committee, for which he was awarded the OBE in 1990. 

    He is survived by Irene, his wife of over 60 years, sons Ian and Robert, and granddaughters Megan, Jodie and Eleanor.

     

    Sidney Kessler: born October 2, 1928. December 24, 2017