A U.S. Woman Industrial Relations Pioneer and “Mother of Arbitration”: The Life and Times of Jean T. McKelvey

Source: Dr. Victor G. Devinatz, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 70 Issue No. 1, Spring 2019
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Due to the explosive growth in union membership in the United States from 1935 to 1945, industrial relations as a field of academic study emerged in the late 1940s with universities, such as Cornell University, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin and University of Illinois, establishing industrial relations institutes and centers which provided both academic degrees and extension programs in the discipline. The union membership spurt from 1935 to 1945 was due to various factors. These elements included the passage of the pro-labor 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the December 1935 organization of the Committee for Industrial Organization, later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938, combined with the growth and stabilization of the industrial unions during World War II. These things set the stage for the inauguration of the academic study of U.S. industrial relations. Virtually all interest and labor arbitrators, some of whom became professors in these industrial relations institutes and centers, were men who had been active as third-party neutrals during the golden age of U.S. labor circa 1945 to 1980. These individuals obtained their initial training and experience while serving in government organizations, such as the National War Labor Board (WLB) and other government-related agencies, during the Second World War. While a number of these male industrial relations pioneers, such as Benjamin Aaron, Ted Kheel and Charles Killingsworth, for example, are well known as industrial relations academics and arbitrators, less is known about Jean Trepp McKelvey, a woman industrial relations pioneer and arbitrator who was a contemporary of Aaron, Kheel and Killingsworth.

Thus, the purpose of this article is to critically analyze the background and career of McKelvey as an industrial relations academic and arbitrator who has been referred to as the “mother of arbitration.” I will argue in this article that McKelvey’s pioneering and innovative work in developing and utilizing fieldwork methodologies in teaching economics and industrial relations classes at Sarah Lawrence College and then in her early years as a Cornell University faculty member is consistent with her use of fieldwork in her early scholarship as well as becoming active in arbitration and third party dispute resolution. Engaging in such activities as a mediator, fact finder and arbitrator can be viewed as constituting “fieldwork experiences for professors” and informed her teaching as an industrial relations professor. McKelvey believed that industrial relations professors should be active in teaching, research and extension work and decried Cornell University’s downgrading of extension work for industrial relations professors by the early 1990s. One of McKelvey’s major research projects, which involved the use of fieldwork, was the practice of union-management cooperation within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1920s, the subject matter of her undergraduate honors thesis as well as her doctoral dissertation. Nevertheless, throughout her life, McKelvey remained skeptical that the utilization of union-management cooperation, when it became popular once more in the 1980s, could be used as a successful strategy to revitalize unions and help them grow while leading unions to have more collective bargaining power…..