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Obituary: Sidney Kessler (1928-2017)


Sidney Kessler, who has died age 89, was a leading academic, with a significant record of public service in the field of industrial relations.

Modest by background as well by temperament, Sidney was born in Whitechapel, London on 2 October 1928, the son of immigrants who had come to this country from Poland.  Brought-up in the Jewish East End, he was exposed to a highly political left-wing culture. He was regaled by tales from two uncles who had gone back from England to fight for the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and his parents were active in the Workers’ Circle, an organisation set-up to provide welfare support to the local community. 

Securing a first-class honours degree at the London School of Economics, he took up his first permanent job in 1956, as Head of the Research Department at the National Union of Mineworkers. With much of British industry still powered by coal, and comprising over 700,000 members, the NUM, led by Will Paynter and Ernest Jones, was a key economic player. Remarkably, however, the Research Department at the time consisted of Sidney and one secretary. Sidney made lifelong friends in the union movement and retained a strong connection to it, returning in the early 1990s to help the TUC deal with inter-union disputes under the Bridlington Agreement.    

In 1964, Sidney became lecturer in industrial relations at City University, London. In 1978 he was made Professor at City, retiring in 1994 as Emeritus Professor.  When appointed, City had only recently become a university and with a handful of other academics he helped establish it as a leading business school. Indeed, somewhat unusually the MBA established had industrial relations as a popular module. While not a prolific writer, in 1992, he co-authored a book with Fred Bayliss entitled ‘Contemporary British Industrial Relations.’ Mapping the impact of Thatcher governments on industrial relations, the book became a standard student textbook, while retaining credibility as a research monograph.   

Sidney’s parallel involvement in public policy developments was equally noteworthy. He participated in a string of public bodies set- up to support British industrial relations in the 1960s and 70s, a period of considerable industrial strife. Much of this work was undertaken in the wake of the Donovan Commission (1968) recommendations and he worked closely with other members of the ‘Oxford School of Industrial Relations’: Hugh Clegg, Allan Flanders and Bill McCarthy.  Sidney played a leading role in: the National Board for Price and Incomes (as part-time adviser, 1965-70) designed to manage pay policy; the Commission on Industrial Relations (on secondment as a full-time director,1971-74) established to facilitate union and employer efforts to reform collective bargaining; and the Standing Commission Pay Comparability (as part-time advisor 1979-80) created in the aftermath of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, to resolve various public sector pay disputes.

Sidney also became an arbitrator whilst at City, work which lead to the award of an OBE in 1990. He was on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’s panel of arbitrators for twenty years. He was also Deputy Chairman of the Central Arbitration Committee over this period, being involved in the early adoption of ‘pendulum arbitration’.

12th January 2018