Professor James Gross’s office is packed with shelves to explore—the wall space endless rows of books on history, labor relations, economics, education. A yellowed Phillies pennant hangs adjacent to a sturdy metal desk fenced with folders and piles of papers. In the middle sits Jim Gross, the self-described “accidental” professor.
Baseball was Gross’s passion while growing up, playing for the Phillies his life plan. “I never thought of becoming a professor,” Gross shares, “I never really thought I would go to college.” Gross entered into active military duty after graduating from LaSalle University, and continued to train for his baseball career. Nudging from friends caused him to consider options besides baseball. What most interested Gross in college were the labor relations courses he took, where the discussions were focused on issues his family and neighbors faced while he was growing up. On a whim, Gross applied to the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin.
His service ended, baseball didn’t work out, and Jim Gross prepared to move to New York City for a job with the Continental Canning Co., when a letter from UW arrived offering him a teaching assistantship. Gross hesitantly changed his plans and moved to Madison. He was miserable for the first few weeks and planned to leave, until he was handed a class to teach and a better living situation. Gross finished his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, meanwhile discovering that he really enjoyed teaching.
Seeking a faculty position in an urban setting, Gross sought to “teach the same kind of students I was from working class families.” Life, again, took him down a road he hadn’t expected. Sitting in on a seminar at MIT, Gross met ILR faculty member George Hildebrand, who asked Gross for a resume. He was offered a position in 1966, and has remained at ILR in the Department of Collective Bargaining, Labor Law, and Labor History.
Specializing in labor law and labor arbitration, Gross is a member of the National Academy of Arbitration, and is well known in the ILR School as a key arbitrator for Major League baseball. He has published extensively, including a three-volume study of the National Labor Relations Board. Gross’s current research focuses on workers’ rights as human rights. His comparison of US labor laws and international human rights also illuminates some of the failures of our laws—to provide domestic workers and agricultural workers with the freedom of association and protection of the National Labor Relations Act, for instance.
A paper Gross recently completed for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law examines the debate over returning to the more worker-friendly laws of the Wagner Act, which were limited by the Taft/Hartley Act of 1947. Gross argues that we need to reassess the Wagner Act and all U.S. labor laws using international human rights principles as standards for judgments. He believes that to “take old issues and consider them from a new perspective is the first step to change;” change not only in workers’ rights, but also in the field of education. When examining education in the US, Gross found that, similar to labor laws, education laws in this country fall far short of what every child is entitled to according to international human rights accords.
Students are exposed to these ideas in a popular course Gross teaches in the Collective Bargaining department: Values in Law, Economics, and Industrial Relations. The course examines the often hidden values and assumptions that underlie US systems of employment law, work and business, and industrial relations, using contemporary short stories, plays, and novels. Students respond enthusiastically to the course, and Gross feels that it is an important part of an education that is sometimes too heavily focused on skill-building. “Students are becoming great technicians, but you can’t go along in life being simply a technician,” Gross asserts, “you need to get beyond skills into values.”
Gross’ heavy bookshelves are a testament to his love of reading, for work and leisure, though the line between the two is sometimes hard to discern. He enjoys any book that “is beautifully written”; maybe even as much as a Phillies game.
—ILR Connections, Winter 2002
- James Gross