NARRATOR: The following is a presentation of the ILR School at Cornell University. ILR, advancing the world of work.
MARY CATT: Good afternoon, welcome to this live webcast with Professor James Gross. Professor Gross is celebrating his 50th academic year at Cornell, at ILR. He came here in the summer of 1966 from Holy Cross College. And he is known to legions of students, myself included, for his teaching on workers' rights, human rights, labor law, arbitration, et cetera. He's influenced literally thousands of students.
And today he's going to talk to us a little bit about his journey here to Cornell and the legacy that he's imparted on to students. So Jim, could you get us started and tell us a little bit about what led you to Cornell.
JAMES GROSS: First of all, I want to thank-- deep felt thanks for those who signed up for this conversation. I'll try to make it as much conversation as possible and not windbag it so that there is no time for question. So I'm going to do my best with that. I do want to warn, however, people, who are my former students, I will not change any grades whether you signed up or not. So we'll get that straight right at the outset.
How did I get to Cornell? I ask myself that question regularly. And when I thought about-- Mary said she was going to ask me that. And when I thought about how to respond to that, I was reminded of an event in a local supermarket, pushing my little basket around. And coming around the aisle in my direction was a student I had in class that particular time. And as he approached me, I could see sort of blinking. And then as we got very close he said, in kind of a quizzical way, Professor Gross?
And I said, yeah, you know, Fred, or whatever, how you doing. What are you doing here, he says to me. I said buying food. And then a little pause, and he stopped, and he said I never thought of you that way. And that's I guess my dual theme for answering that question, how I got to Cornell. It's what am I doing at Cornell. I don't mean what do I do at Cornell, I mean what am I doing at Cornell. And then the second question is more of really to understand that, understand that I'm at least, usually, a human being.
And so it's not that I just appear for class at office hours and then disappear. He said, you know, I never thought of you that way. What happens? Do I have a life outside? And I think that life outside really explains a lot about how I got to Cornell, but more so about my perception of being a professor at Cornell, sort of self-perception. And I would like to be able to convey that to the folks who have signed up for this.
I'm going to start off by saying I was born. And so don't groan and say, oh my god, how many years has he been around. He's going to go year-- no. But I was born in Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia. Spent most of my life moving one side to the other of the Delaware River, Jersey side, Philadelphia's side. I was raised by what I call a committee of women. My father-- my parents were divorced when I was a year and a half, when my brother was born.
My father brought me to his sister's, and a wonderful woman, I always referred to as Aunt Katie, who was a teenager, came over as a teenager from Ireland, had gone to four grades of school, and never married, but spent her life working, and raising, and educating a whole pile of kids who were not her own, including me.
That household was one of people who were frustrated, angry, disappointed, disillusioned, poor. A good chunk of our early lives or my early life was realizing what people were trying to do, as my Aunt Katie would put it, try to stay off relief. That is, I mean, today we call welfare. Stay off relief because it was a more pride thing. But my father was a wonderful man, very talented man, very frustrated man. Died at 46 as a complete, total alcoholic. Sad, sad story.
But with all of those negative attributes, there was an enormous amount of love in that house. I show a film to the students in recent years, an interview with Maya Angelou with Bill Moyers. And she's returning to her home in Arkansas, Stamps, Arkansas where she grew up. And she kind of muses to herself as she's approaching the town. She said, you know, I was vastly hurt in this town and vastly loved.
And when she said that, it just kind of clicked with me. Yeah, it wasn't all bad, it wasn't all good. But it was sort of a human struggle to get along and survive. And so there was a lot of hurt, but also a lot of love. But what it meant for me, connecting how did I get into academics, in part, was I wanted to escape a lot. And there were two major escape routes for me. One being baseball, and the other being school.
When I say escape, I mean literally, get out of the house, and be somewhere where you're doing something you're pretty good at, and getting congratulated about it. Being in school-- now I went to a Catholic grammar school with Dominican nuns. And all of the horrible things that Catholic priests have done to boys and others, I did not experience. I had the good fortune of experiencing truly the love of these women.
And so in reflection, I don't know-- I would not be sitting here having this conversation that we're going to have, we're all going to have, if it had not been for that committee of women who raised me, and for those Dominican nuns. But in our household, college was not an option. It wasn't thinking about going to school.
For my Aunt Katie, her aspirations for me were to get an office job, where I could wear a shirt and a tie, where I wouldn't have to have to go into mines, or in the factory, or whatever. That was the aspiration, not to get to Yale, or Harvard, or wherever, but to get an office job. Graduate from high school and get an office job. And that was fine with me.
But the connection between baseball and education came when in order-- I'll just cut this short-- but in order to continue what I thought was going to be a professional baseball career, I had to go to college, because I couldn't sign a contract. I was too young at the time. Anyway, where did I go to college?
Not the college that I had studied and I wanted to go to this because of my career aspirations or wherever. I went to LaSalle College because the coach of the baseball team at LaSalle was a former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher. And so that's why I went to LaSalle.
Turned out to be one of the great-- accidentally-- one of the great experiences of my life. The people, the faculty members, at that college-- now university, but college then-- were just enormously supportive and helpful to me. It was a kind of escape, still. But it was a marvelous one. I was first generation college thing.
Just as an aside footnote, anybody who's interested, we're doing-- Cleet Daniel, my dear friend, who started the internship program. We're funding interns, not exclusively, but mainly who are first generation college students, who would like go on an intern, but it would be an unpaid internship, and can't afford it. So we were establishing some fund to help out with that. But that, in part, is the idea.
At some point in my career, the Phillies decided that I would be a better anything than a baseball player. And so I had to try to figure out something to do. So get a job was one possibility. And I did interview and get a job. I don't know if the company still exists. It was Continental Can Company. I would be in New York for a year or two. I came back to Southwest Philly at that point.
And as I'm getting ready to go to New York, I got a letter from the University of Wisconsin. I had forgotten that I had applied to one graduate school when I was at LaSalle. And it was at the instigation of a couple of my baseball teammates, who might have seen the handwriting on the wall-- what are you going to do if you don't make baseball, a baseball career.
And my first reaction was, I don't know anybody at Wisconsin who's writing to me-- true. I opened it up, and it said, congratulations you've been accepted at Wisconsin and awarded in assistantship. And I thought, hey, I've already got a job. I didn't throw it out. I just tossed it on a table.
But every so often, I'd pick it up. And I finally decided I'll go to Wisconsin and do that assistantship. Because I had a love of academics? No. I think it was because, to be brutally honest, I think, that I feared going to New York on my own, trying to find a place to stay in that city. At that point in my life, I had never been out of Philadelphia or South Jersey, except for one stint in Oklahoma, a few weeks in Oklahoma.
It was overwhelming to me that idea. So going into a PhD program was an escape, always escaping, escape artist. Went to Wisconsin. I arrived at Wisconsin. I detested it. The professors were great, everybody in the program was-- exceptional program. I did not like the academic life. I had met my fellow grad students, all of whom wanted to sit around and talk about theory this, and theory Y, and whatever. And I wanted to talk about who won the Phillies game yesterday.
And I thought I have no connection with these people. This is not what I want to do. This is the biggest mistake I've ever made in my life, thinking I want to be a professor. I don't want to do this. If I had had the return fare, again I wouldn't be at this table. I don't know where I'd be. But I would be at this table. I didn't have the return fare.
So it was OK, I will work a couple months, get my TA, my Teaching Assistant check, save up enough money. I don't want to abandon people. I'll wait to the end of the semester and I'm out of here. I had that all laid out, all planned out. Somewhere during that semester, one of the professors came to me and said, we've heard some good things about your teaching,
I guess you'd call it with students, and what they called it at Wisconsin, quiz sections, discussion sections. How would you like to teach your own class in the spring? Professor so-and-so is going off. And I said, well-- it'll be principles of economics for non-economic majors.
And I thought, hey, I can con non-economic majors, about whatever. Well, the non-economic majors turned out to be engineers. Yes, well, that was an interesting semester. But my recollection was $4,500 for me to teach that class, was like, whoa. And so I stayed. And stayed and finished the program.
My first teaching job was at Holy Cross. I hadn't finished my dissertation yet. I don't think anybody gets hired anymore without finishing having finished their dissertation. But I had not. But I got hired. And it was a wonderful place to be, great school. But I started interviewing around about, because I wanted to do some research and writing as well. Holy Cross is a great teaching school.
There was a-- staying with this theme of escaping and accident, there was a professor at MIT, who knew a professor at Holy Cross, who said, hey, send him over here. We have a guy here from Cornell named George Hildebrand. He's visiting, and I'm sure he'd be happy to talk to him.
I talked with George Hildebrand for an hour. I thought man, this is-- what a great guy and this is wonderful. And he said something at the end, but no one leaves Cornell. There's just no turnover, but I'll take your resume. And I'm like, ah, you know-- I'll take your resume, keep it on file thing, OK.
I'm driving back a little diminished, whatever. Two or three-- I had in the meantime pursued a job at Temple University. That's what I wanted at that point. I wanted to teach working class kids just like me, first generation, whatever. That's what I wanted to do. And I was 99% sure.
Married then. Had a couple-- we had three children. And I get this letter from Marist Neufeld-- some of the folks out there remember Marist-- talked to George Hildebrand. We have an opening, would you be interested. Well, it turned out, I didn't know it at the time, but the opening was a position held by a professor named Jesse Carpenter. His wife in some previous months had died. He renewed an acquaintance with an old high school sweetheart, the story as I was told.
They sparked, I guess, if that's the word, and decided to get married. And leave, he would leave, retire, and leave Cornell and go back to South Carolina where they were both from. That's what created the opening. That occurred between my talk with George Hildebrand.
George Hildebrand said come on. I went over and I interviewed. And I remember being on this campus for the first time. I was absolutely overwhelmed. I had no-- and my thought in my head was what am I doing here. I don't mean making a rational calculation of what am I doing-- it's what blank am I doing here. This is not-- this is just too much.
Did the interview, they offered me a job. Flying home, flew to Boston, called my wife. How did it go-- her mother was visiting at the time-- how did it go. Well, they offered me a job. I couldn't say anything else, and she's hollering in the background to her mother, we're going to Cornell, we're going to Cornell. And I'm-- but, but, but, but-- I wanted to go to Temple.
But anyway, we came to Cornell. So I still have-- the end of this bit of our presentation I guess-- I still have this combined feeling-- talking 50 years now-- of inadequacy and awe about Cornell. I have it when I go to class. I think it's the explanation why I prepare so hard for class is a little bit of insecurity too.
But sometimes I'm walking down the hallway to class and I actually stop. I don't know if I physically stop, but in my brain I stop and think, I'm not sure I can do this. I like to think it doesn't show when the class is going. But I don't think of myself as an academic, although I'm a professor of 50 years at Cornell University. But I still, like my old grad student connections at Wisconsin, don't like to sit around and talk about theories.
I have a real concern that academics pulls people away from the streets, abstracts, theorizes about whatever, generalizes about-- you start talking about workers rather than actually having known a worker, or being in a working family. And it's something that really bothers me immensely.
MARY CATT: But you've been able to keep one foot in the real world, through a lot of different things you do, such as the sports arbitration. And you bring that into the classroom. And you're out there actually mediating disputes.
JAMES GROSS: I'd like to think-- I mean, if the question-- maybe I'm twisting the question a little bit-- is so after 50 years, what do you think, well what do you think. I'd like to think that those fed labor arbitration for me, and other courses related, know that a good chunk of that is sort of how to do it technical skill, how to write an opinion, how to make a good opening statement, whatever it might be.
But I'd like to think that my major contribution has been the theme I hammer, ever since I've been here, is that we're talking about rights, we're talking about justice, we're talking about human beings, we're talking about their lives. And so if you're an arbitrator, you need to have all these skills we're talking about, but compassion, empathy, and sense of justice.
And so, yeah, if I've touched any students over the years, or anyone else out there, with writing, or lecturing, or whatever, to inspire them to have that to mention, to make lives better for other people, and, it's a little cliche, but the world a better place, the labor world, the work world, a better place, in the sense of justice and fairness, that would be touching, moving.
It would make so much of it all worthwhile. Because I think, and it's probably true of anybody in any job, there are sometimes situations where I'll think, man, does what I'm doing make any difference at all to anybody? Any book I read make any difference to anybody? Anything I've ever written make any difference? Or any classes, or courses, or connection to students? I'm thrilled sometimes when I get a note from a former student saying those things that, yeah, it did make a difference, or whatever.
And that makes it all worthwhile to me. On the arbitration front, the sports , arbitration in a way is not the real world. Sitting in-- and when I did baseball salary arbitration, deciding whether somebody is going to get $14 million or $12 million, is not the real world to me. It probably serves some function. I do hockey now, which is I deal with disputes between players and their agents, which we might want to talk about, or someone out there might want to talk about.
But for me, when I say that to students, I've arbitrated for umpteen years, and I've had hundreds of arbitration cases, discipline cases, involving reinstatement for example, people who have been discharged. What strikes me, and a connection that is a great question about one foot in the real world, is with my concern about academics abstracting from the real world and losing touch with the real world.
Arbitration's been one way to keep in touch with the real world. And so when I think of contributions that might have had with students and might have affected their lives, I think-- I hope in a positive way-- and the lives of other people that deal with them, so many people who have come before me who've lost their jobs and been fired. And so we have a hearing.
This might be the end of my arbitration career by saying this. But one of the great accomplishments I think of is when I think I'm correct, and the evidence justifies it, and whatever, that was not just cause, I've been in a position to reinstate those folks to the jobs that they held, put them back. And I'm thinking, growing up as a kid, unemployment was a regular activity in my house. And so it was the possibility that somebody would come along and be able to put you back on the job, to have that.
I know as an arbitrator my job's not out there to just keep reinstating people. But when it's justified, that's an amazing-- even if it's two people or three people. But I think it's not my record in discipline and discharge cases, but many, many more than that. And I think to be able to be in that position, to say that's an accomplishment, as such, not only in my own doing, but it's part of being at Cornell, and part of being a professor who has had that opportunity to be an arbitrator and to do that kind of thing.
MARY CATT: We're getting some great questions in.
JAMES GROSS: OK, then I'll shut up then.
MARY CATT: No, one of them is right down this alley. And it's, is it difficult to be neutral as an arbitrator when you believe in the human rights of all workers?
JAMES GROSS: That is an excellent question. And my answer to that is yes. There's a sense, I think, sometimes of an arbitrator approaching a case as a neutral. And honestly, I don't believe there's any such thing as neutrality. If you know about a subject, if you've studied it, you have information, you have a point of view on it.
I mentioned alcoholism before. Let's say I had a case involving somebody who's an alcoholic on the job. You know, my whole boyhood was influenced by that. And so, boy, do I have some opinions about that and the consequences of that? Yeah. Could I render a decision in that case involving that person, even if the evidence is they're an alcoholic? Absolutely. I think it would be a betrayal of the trust that people put in me to do otherwise.
And if I felt that I feel so strongly about alcoholism that if anyone takes a drink, they're going to go to hell, and now this case involves somebody drinking on the job. I got to disqualify myself from that. But if it's, yeah, I know all about alcoholism. I know the horrors it can cause. I know the pain it can cause the people suffering from that disease, which I believe it is. Hey, that just makes me better equipped to hear that.
And human rights, boy, I hope there's nothing inconsistent between the promotion and protection of human rights and just cause for discharge. It does seem to me that they are consistent in the determination of whether there's just cause for discipline, or whatever, to absolutely have a standard of justice and fairness that respects the human rights of all human beings. I mean, otherwise, I think we ought to bag that process. If the arbitration process is just to aid and abet unions or employers, or to facilitate production, or whatever, then we ought bag that one.
MARY CATT: Speaking of unions--
JAMES GROSS: That question is so wonderful, that it would take an enormous amount-- I probably haven't done answer to it.
MARY CATT: There's a dozen of them here. They're excellent. Your former students are coming up some great stuff.
JAMES GROSS: Uh-oh, that may not be good.
MARY CATT: This one is from Tom Duzak. I hope I pronounced that--
JAMES GROSS: Tom Duzak, my god. How are you, Tom? You still in Pittsburgh?
MARY CATT: He writes, Jim, I came to the ILR School as a way to find work with a labor union. Because of what I learned from you, as well as Dave Lipski, Jean McKelvey, and others, my dreams came true. That was 48 years ago. Today, what can the IRL School do to help similar students qualify for and find union side or related employment.
JAMES GROSS: Yeah this has been-- that's a great question. That's something that's been bothering me a long time. And I put some of the onus-- well, let's see, how can I put this. Tom's question was really true even when Tom was here. But there's been a shift in the school I think, that collective bargaining, labor law, labor history, or whatever is really not top dog anymore.
We're still, I think, an important part of the school. But human resources, and organizational behavior, and some of the other activities, I think are much more connected with industry jobs and so on. Part of that-- so part of what's Tom's question, I think, is a consequence of that shift, more to business oriented stuff, I think.
But secondly, I put some of the onus on labor unions themselves. They're not beating the bushes here, coming up looking for really outstanding students. We have a lot of really good students, many of whom are still very interested in careers in the labor movement. But the question is always, how do we go about that, how do I find that? Or sometimes the positions available, which I understand, it is a test.
There's organizing, going out and organizing in the hinterland somewhere for not very much money and a lot of risk, and a lot of frustration. That's part of it, a test of dedication and so on. But there's got to be better jobs out there in the labor movement. But to shake out of this notion that we ought to just promote from within and have our old folks come up, to really utilize the ILR School and other schools like it for top-notch talent. And a lot of-- so many of our students, not only have that capability and the competence, but the dedication to do that. They're still there.
Sometimes they're on their own trying to find a job. And now we do have a union fair. We do have social justice fair. People come up and talk about jobs and stuff. And that's a big plus. But that ought to be multiplied by a 100. And again, I'm sure I'm not answering Tom's question completely, but it's a great question.
MARY CATT: Well, here's another related one from Bob Cozma, what hope do you have for the future of the labor movement in the US?
JAMES GROSS: Yeah, current trends going, not much hope. I think for me, one of the tragedies in the history of the labor movement was what sometimes people would blow celebratory horns about, was the triumph of business unionism. The bread and butter union as in wages, hours, and working conditions. Are wages, hours, and working conditions important? They surely are.
One of the consequences, however, is a narrow focus on wages, hours, and working conditions for my group. The characterization of labor unions as self-interest groups, I think flows directly from that. I'm actually not only competing with my employer to get better wages and so on, I'm competing with some other unions. This notion of labor solidarity, forget it. Everybody's pursuing their own self-interests.
As long as that-- and I believe unfortunately, it still characterizes so much of the labor movement. It's changing a bit, too slowly I think. But the question about human rights and work I'm doing in human rights, and so on, is I say to unions when I talk to them, don't talk about yourselves as just as interest groups, and getting better wages, hours, and working conditions.
That's important, you do that. But you are non-governmental human rights organizations. You are against discrimination. You want safety and health at the workplace. You want decent wages and decent jobs for people out there. If you went down a catalog of-- you're for freedom of association. And if you went down that catalog, you're it.
Present yourself that, and connect up with other organizations out there doing the same kind of thing, women's groups, civil rights groups, community organizing groups. Some of that's being done. It's hard work, but that to me, is the hope, pursuing the hope that business unionism will-- maybe we'll have another giant recession, or depression, or something, and then business unions will triumph again. But that's sad.
MARY CATT: Yeah, Lowell Turner, Founding Academic Director of the Worker institute.
JAMES GROSS: Lowell Turner.
MARY CATT: Yes. And he says--
JAMES GROSS: I remember you, Will.
MARY CATT: Let's turn this country around. And he mentions the Worker Institute with its Union Leadership Institute labor movement revitalization efforts. And I know that you worked closely with the Worker Institute a couple of years ago, when you put on an anniversary conference for the NLRA, correct?
JAMES GROSS: Thanks for the infomercial, Lowell. No, Lowell is correct. One on major activities in ILR, not only with students, but faculty, as well as the Worker institute, and so questions about where's the labor movement going, I think in great part, find out what that operation's all about.
We did that conference two years ago now, I guess. And it was very successful in New York, sponsored by the Worker institute. One of the themes, and I think on the question of the future the labor movement, what really needs to be addressed, almost everybody in that room, when the discussion sections occurred with the panels, were workers of some sort or another, from lower paid jobs, unskilled jobs, to very highly skilled, highly positioned jobs. But they all said the same thing.
You're talking-- I don't mean me, but almost all the panels, about exercise of freedom of association, exercising collective organization, all that good stuff. Yes, we agree, that's it. But in order to do that, we have to risk our job. There's something inherently-- we're talking about the future of what the labor movement could do, whatever. Something inherently wrong, fundamentally in violation of human rights, for people who want to exercise their freedom of association to have to undertake the risk of losing their job in order to do that, to get fired, or not promoted, or punished in some other way.
The fact that that-- just in that conference, that was, people-- you know, I'm in a high paying job, whatever, but I can't risk my job by doing this. I'm in a low paying job, I can't risk my job. Across the board, why the blank do people have to risk their livelihoods in order to exercise what around the world, although it's not practiced around the world, but around the world is accepted as a fundamental core human right, to exercise freedom of association.
So I can say go out, organize, have community groups, and all that. Easy for me to say. I have tenure. I am in total-- going back to my childhood now-- I am in the totally unreal world of academe, where I don't know what I'd have to do to get fired. But other people, you look at a supervisor cross-eyed, and you get fired. Or you even talk about a union, and you get fired. There's something haywire about that. And that needs to be addressed seriously by the labor movement itself and all other kinds of groups.
MARY CATT: And obviously, very meaningful. Because the accolades are pouring in. Mike says--
JAMES GROSS: You're just pretending.
MARY CATT: No, I'm not.
JAMES GROSS: I can't see why you're reading from, you're just making this up.
MARY CATT: I may have to take care of this as after the webcast, because we can't possibly get all of these in. But Mike, no last name, writes in, working in a nonunion factory, starving for connections to old labor rooms. This conversation is meaningful to me. Which is great, thanks for writing in, Mike.
JAMES GROSS: Thank you, Mike.
MARY CATT: Just a couple more questions, and we'll wrap it up. But another viewer wrote in, in view of the current attack on collective bargaining rights, is there a role that arbitrators can play?
JAMES GROSS: That's a very good question. Almost everything I've written about labor arbitration has been critical of it. Too much of labor arbitration-- there are exceptions. I am going to get to the answer, I think. Too much of it is commercialization. Too much of it is careerism. Too much of it is simply trying to treat employers and unions as one's clients to get reinvited to the cases.
I've been a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators, and they actually used to use the term, I believe, client, for labor management, for union and management representatives. That sense of arbitration as dealing with clients, and a big money making scheme, is repulsive to me. And I think it's-- the answer to that question is I would have no faith in arbitrators of that sort, who are in business to make a buck.
Now I can say that in part, I guess-- I mean, I believe that, but I would say it anyway. But I can say it, because I have tenure. I'm the labor arbitrator. And that earlier question is if I'm doing human rights stuff out there, and people say hey, this guy's biased or whatever, we're not going to pick him anymore, I'd still have a life. I'd still have a decent income. Don't let the dean hear that. A decent income from teaching if I never had another arbitration case. My nose would be out of joint.
I don't look to arbitrators to make social change, to bring about social justice. I do look for the people that appear before arbitrators to do that. And one way is to get-- if arbitrators are going to focus on contracts, get this stuff in your contract. Instead of having just a management rights clause, have a human rights clause in your collective bargaining agreement as well, so the arbitrator has to deal with that. Make these arguments, human rights arguments before your arbitrators.
So that it's on the record, and the arbitrator can't ignore that. But I'm saying that again at a time when organized labor is diminishing, fewer and fewer collective bargaining agreements out there. But that's a way to do it. Another, I guess, is partly what I see as kind of preaching I guess, the human rights doctrine out there, that worker rights are human rights, and through Worker Institutes and other groups, community organizations, whatever, to push this.
At that conference you mentioned, there was a wonderful woman, Heti Rosenstein, who's a CWA regional director, I believe, in sort of frustration shouted out from her panel, why are people not in the streets? Why is everybody putting up with this? And then she went through a catalog of stuff that's going on with impunity it seems.
Now people are beginning to get in the streets, and for sometimes for different reasons. I find that encouraging. When I was on a Fulbright at McGill some years ago, and it was a wonderful experience for me in many ways, but one was, every afternoon, almost like clockwork, there'd be a demonstration. I'd run over to my office window and look out, on Sherbrooke, which was one of the main thoroughfares. And there'd be five, six, seven blocks worth of people marching up chanting about something.
I had no idea, mostly, what the chants were about, and what the demonstrations-- but they were in the streets. And the police and whatever were facilitating them doing their march, not trying to inhibit them or discourage them. That to me was so wonderful, that people cared enough everyday to be out there in the streets. And I know that's not a really coherent answer to all that, but it's difficult to come up with, because things are in such, I think, in such bad shape, not hopeless, but bad shape.
MARY CATT: Nicole Smart, MPS 15 writes in, you have certainly served as an inspiration to many during your 50 years as an ILR faculty member. What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the labor movement?
JAMES GROSS: I think diversity and inclusion-- oh, OK, let me go back partly to my arbitration question, and then I want to broaden out on this. Almost all labor arbitrators still look like me. They're white. I don't have my tie on today, I don't have my arbitration suit on today. But they look just like me. Most of the advocates who appear before me, lawyers or otherwise, also don't like me.
There have been some breakthrough in that there are more women than before acting as advocates. But more, and more, and more people who appear before me as grievants, people who've lost their job, people didn't get the promotion, don't look like me or the people who represent them, different colors, different ethnic backgrounds, different languages.
And so when I say to my students in arbitration, OK, you got to have empathy, and compassion, or whatever, oh, not so easy to talk about empathy if I don't know anything about that person's culture, or background, or history, or whatever. It's a serious problem, I think, in labor arbitration. A serious problem beyond it, if the people who are still representing unions are still white males, that's not a good idea either. Because they must have the same problem I have as an arbitrator, relating, connecting to the people they're representing.
The people that are part of the labor movement, or what I like to call "the people," they're the real people in the world, day laborers, and so on. The people that I grew up with in my neighborhood. Those are suffering fighting, working, drinking, whatever, but trying to survive, those are the people who desperately need help.
But those people are as diverse as they could possibly be, in terms of ethnic background, gender, the works. They are not, at this point, being represented the way they ought to be represented, not just by organizations interested in representing them, but by themselves. I mean, one of my big complaints-- it's not going to solve that problem-- in arbitration is that-- no disrespect for lawyers out there, there are some great lawyers out there-- but you need a lawyer in all of these cases.
And many of the union cases in particular, I think, could be presented maybe even more effectively by people who are at the workplace, the shop stewards, the union president, or whatever, who know the consequences of, or influence of, the diversity at the workplace. I think overall, the labor movement has made some progress, but it a long way to go on the diversity front.
But also if we talk about inclusion, in a sense of freedom of association doesn't mean just labor unions, but means all other kinds of organizations, so that we have one freedom of association exercise with many groups coalescing and coming together. That to me is the great possibility for diversity. In my class, you can't live without diversity.
I mean, the idea that some students get their nose out of joint about affirmative action or whatever-- oh, I had a friend who had an SAT score that was 100 points more than somebody who was an African-American, that's not fair, that's reverse discrimination. That's just too horrible to-- it's too horrible to even repeat. If I have a classroom of everybody who came from the same place, it's a boring classroom. If I have a classroom-- some of the classes I teach depend on people coming from all around the world.
And again, you're talking from a kid who for a long time didn't get out of the neighborhood. And so I really appreciate how important that is. You talk about narrow blinders, all I knew was what I grew up with. And gradually, over the years, in great part thanks to Cornell, I've had exposure to things that people take for granted.
One of the first dinners I ever attended here, I mean a social dinner with faculty members, who were extremely nice to me by the way, people were talking about all their time in Greece, or when you're in Thailand, you have to go to this place, you have go to-- I'm sitting there like, yeah, I've heard about those places, you know. I mean, I know where those countries are I think. But that's part of being overwhelming.
But that's part of learning. I mean, it's a learning experience for me. But students have to learn from each other as well as maybe learn something from me. But they have to learn from each other. And I learn from the students, sounds hokey. But that's going to be increased the more diverse experiences, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds that are out there. It's vital to learn it. It's not just a nice thing. It's not just something to comply with the law. It's inherently necessary to have a real learning experience, I think.
MARY CATT: N. Potter writes in-- hi, Jim, my wife and I recently downsized in Atlanta. One thing that survived were your books, and I know you've written seven, on arbitration and values, the National Labor Relations Board, and on worker rights and human rights. How do you view respect for human rights being implemented in companies today?
JAMES GROSS: Well, first of all, I finally discovered who's actually read those books. So you're the one, or the ones, so thank you. Actually some progress. I'm a big critic of corporate social responsibility plans, mainly because they're not monitored very carefully. Often they're just public relations jobs. And so I think to some extent they're diversions or camouflage, not doing justice too well.
But we just had in my workplace safety and health class, we had a man, Michael Bride, who is the training director of the Bangladesh Accords. Remember the Rana Plaza building collapses, and the fires, and whatever. And I got a somewhat different view, a more optimistic view of what could be done with these programs. Many American companies-- well, some American companies, mainly European companies contributing to this fund, paying for building renovations. Actually paying, not just running scared about lawsuits and liability, or whatever. But actually up front paying for this, having serious monitoring arrangements. That's a real possibility.
If I backup, sometimes I think around-- I taught freedom of association, and labor unions, and community groups, or whatever, worker institutes, the potential for good, as I'm defining good, if that rests with employers, is immense. I mean, as people out there know, there are employers that have budgets bigger than many countries in the world. And so not only good in their own operations, but if they came together.
I don't mean paternalism, I mean encouraging bottom up organization. One of the things, for example, the real test to me of-- maybe a little late to get on the dangerous rhetoric, but of a corporate social responsibility plan and/or a human resources department, is its attitude toward the exercise of freedom of association, and its protection and promotion of that freedom of association, and willing to deal with the people who do organize on an independent, truly independent, basis, that they're organized from the bottom up, with respect for their rights.
Otherwise, I think it can be, often is, a camouflage, a fake out, and a manipulative device to get employees to do what the company wants them to do without changing the power relationship between the company and the employee. I don't know if-- an overwhelming number of employees, except in the unreal faculty world at Cornell, are employees at will. I mean, you can be fired for any reason or no reason whatsoever, doesn't violate unfortunately external law.
But if I'm led to believe this is a wonderful place to work, and the people I work for care about me, and I'm integral to the operation, I can believe that, but it doesn't change the fact that at a snap of the finger, I can get fired, for no good reason whatsoever. And I can't talk about arbitration or grievance procedure, because there ain't none.
And so that to me is a fundamental violation of human rights. That employment at will is a fundamental violation of human right. It renders people powerless. It renders them vulnerable to manipulation. It means that fear we talked about earlier about, a risk, I got to take a risk, if I talk freedom of association and unionization to my job. All the bad stuff I think flows from that powerless position.
And at this school, the uniqueness of this school, it seems to me, over the years, is that it taught collective action. It had all the other personnel, and human resources or whatever, but the core of the school was collective action, organization, collective bargaining, and empowerment, not just by somebody granting you stuff, but you get power to influence the decisions that affect your life. That's what I grew up with. I grew up where nobody I grew up had any power and influence over their lives.
MARY CATT: And thanks to you, Professor Gross, thousands of students have left here knowing how to empower other people. And a lot of them have written in today. And I'm excited for you to see what they've written. We don't have time. We're running out, it's almost an hour. But I'm going to leave with one comment from Brendan Keating who's a graduate, 1915 graduate of the NPI's New York City program.
JAMES GROSS: I do remember Brendan.
MARY CATT: I'm a shop steward now in the AFT working at Rutgers University. You, Professor Gross, helped me get up the courage to follow the dream instead of the money. So thanks, everyone, for joining us.
JAMES GROSS: Going to make me cry, Brendan. Thank you.
MARY CATT: Thank you.
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Professor James Gross is celebrating 50 years as an ILR faculty member. Gross has taught courses such as Workers’ Rights as Human Rights, Labor Arbitration, and Labor Law to thousands of students. The author of a four-volume history of the National Labor Relations Board, he is considered its leading historian. Initially going to college only to play baseball, Professor Gross became a Major League Baseball salary arbitrator and is currently an arbitrator for the National Hockey League Players Association, deciding disputes between players and their agents.