Prof. Emeritus George Strauss, industrial relations pioneer, dies at 97

George Strauss, an icon in the field of industrial relations who helped establish the Haas School of Business as an organizational theory powerhouse starting in the 1960s, passed away in Berkeley, Calif. on Nov. 28.

Prof. Emeritus George Strauss (Berkeley Haas file photo)

Strauss, who served as a professor at Haas from 1962 to 1991, was a top scholar of organizational behavior, unions, workplace participation, and comparative industrial relations who introduced a focus on human problems to the study of management. He was a prolific researcher who wrote 13 books, edited a dozen others, and authored more than 150 journal articles. He served as director of the interdisciplinary Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (then known as the Institute for Industrial Relations) from 1983 to 1987, and for more than half a century, he was dedicated to strengthening UC Berkeley.

To his students and peers, Strauss exemplified the values that characterized Haas culture long before they were codified as the Defining Leadership Principles. Former students and faculty recall him as a dedicated mentor with remarkable intellect, a calm demeanor, sharp wit, and abundant generosity.

“His gentle humor, endless wealth of historical examples, and wisdom will be sorely missed,” said David Levine, a Haas professor who holds the Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Chair in Business Administration.

“So many of us owe so much to this influential scholar and man of deep and beautiful humanity,” said Keith Whitfield, a professor of human resource management at Cardiff University in Wales and one of Strauss’ co-authors. “He was one of the greats in our subject area, even though he would never say so or even accept the veracity of anyone else saying so.”

Redefining the study of work

Strauss was born on June 25, 1923, and grew up on New York City’s Staten Island. He graduated with a BA from Swarthmore College before earning his PhD in economics and social science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before joining Haas in 1962, he taught for seven years at the University of Buffalo.

Deeply influenced by the Great Depression and the plight of workers, Strauss was a young, rising star in academia when he was recruited to Haas—then the Berkeley Business School. His expertise in organizational behavior was especially valuable, as Haas and business schools generally at the time were beginning to take a broader view of workplace issues beyond unions, according to a 2015 history of the school. For many, this included integrating behavioral and social sciences into curricula.

In 1960, George and co-author Leonard Sayles had published the pathbreaking textbook Managing Human Resources (Prentice Hall), which went through four editions. They followed it up with Personnel: The Human Problems of Management, which also went through four editions, said Roger Lamm, one of Strauss’ former Haas doctoral students turned friend of 50 years.

“For the first time, they published a management textbook which emphasized behavioral management rather than the old-style rules approach used in management textbooks up to that point,” said Lamm, a retired professor in the Graduate School of Management at Saint Mary’s College. “Over the years, tens of thousands of students learned management from these books, and numerous authors were influenced by them in redirecting the focus within the management and personnel fields. Today, all the major texts in these fields have this focus.”

In the 1960s, Strauss won a large grant from the Ford Foundation to establish a six-month full-time leadership training program on campus for minority union members. “Many of the 100-plus graduates from this program went on to become leaders of their unions,” said Lamm.

Beyond Haas, Strauss served as editor of the journal Industrial Relations and as president of the Industrial Relations Research Association. He was a fellow at the Academy of Management and served on the editorial boards of several other journals, including Human Relations, the International Journal of Human Resources Management, and the International Journal of Employment Studies. Strauss was also a visiting professor and scholar at universities in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

In 1991, Strauss received the Berkeley Citation in recognition of his achievements and extraordinary contributions to the university, most notably his leadership of the Institute of Industrial Relations, as it was then known. He was also an active volunteer with the Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley, or Berkeley Co-op, and he served on the City of Berkeley Mayor’s Budget Committee.

George and his wife, Helene, who passed away in 2012 after 55 years of marriage, were a devoted couple who loved reading, traveling, visiting museums, California’s wild lands, viewing vacation slides (Helene was an avid photographer), and introducing visiting scholars to the beauty of the Bay Area. Strauss also loved maps, hiking, history, architecture, and conservation. He was a generous supporter to many organizations that benefited these projects, as well as to those which supported human rights.

After he retired from teaching, Strauss continued to conduct research as a professor emeritus for another two decades. One of his most-cited articles, published in Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society in 1996, looked at the challenges of adopting workplace innovations.

Pulling no punches

George and Helene Strauss in Sydney, Australia
George and Helene Strauss in Sydney, Australia

Ron Callus, who first met Strauss as a young academic on sabbatical from Australia to Berkeley, recalls how Strauss taught him to question the status quo. “It was because of George’s incisive and probing questions that I realized how little I knew about workplace-level industrial relations,” said Callus, the retired director of the former Australian Centre of Industrial Relations Research & Training at the University of Sydney.

“George was not only generous with his time, but he was also refreshingly honest and forthright in his views of the character of people and about research that he saw as flawed, pretentious or, worse, superficial,” said Callus. Strauss displayed that signature candor in a 2008 working paper on the prospect of Australia adopting labor laws similar to those in the United States: “While I love my country, I never thought of it as a model of good labor relations,” he wrote.

Strauss is survived by his daughters Emilie Strauss and Liz Strauss and her husband Mark Hughes, as well as his sister Miriam Rosenthal.

The family hopes to host a memorial once the pandemic has abated. Those wishing to remember Strauss may do so by making a donation in Strauss’s memory to the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment (UCB), the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, or the Sierra Club.