Robert B. McKersie

An Academic/Activist’s Search for Synergies

Professor Robert B. McKersie

Why is it so difficult for Blacks and whites to have productive conversations about race in America? Why, more than half a century after so many iconic civil rights milestones, has progress been uneven or seemingly nonexistent on fronts such as education, employment, housing, and criminal justice? And what can we learn from 1960s activism and contemporary negotiations theory and practice that would help us address these challenges going forward?

As an academic and activist, MIT Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus Robert B. McKersie has asked these questions. During his seven decades as a prominent thought leader in industrial relations and negotiations, McKersie often has ventured beyond the bounds of classrooms and scholarly publications to engage in and support direct action campaigns that promote social and economic justice.

The persistent power of great ideas

Not all pioneers manage to stay relevant for their entire careers, but McKersie has remained an important practitioner and thought leader for decades.  Several years ago, he used his deep expertise in negotiations and social justice to help launch a police–community relations project in Everett, Massachusetts. “Everett is quite diverse, and local leaders were eager to reach out to residents in the wake of events in Ferguson and other communities” says McKersie. “A local minister chaired a public forum that included the chief of police and representatives of the school system. When the minister asked the gathering if they thought Everett police engaged in profiling, all the Black hands in the room went up—but none of the white ones.”

Through his affiliation with the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School, McKersie connected PON executive committee member Robert Bordone and three negotiations graduate students with the Everett community policing initiative. The interracial student team met with city leaders and interested citizens every Friday for several weeks before sharing their findings with the chief of police and his department. “The students wrote a remarkable report, and Chief Mazzie welcomed it enthusiastically,” McKersie says. “The assessment is filled with great ideas for repairing trust and ensuring consistent interactions between police and young people in Everett.”

For McKersie, the Everett initiative embodies the synergies between scholarship and social justice that have defined his career. “We need to multiply this type of activity at the community level around the country,” he says. “When the protests heat up—for reasons that are very understandable—the situation becomes adversarial. All sides need to understand the fears that lead to mistrust and conflict, then move beyond those fears to facilitation and dialogue. When we can sit down and have honest discussions, we’re much more likely to make progress.”

Focus on fairness

Fairness, equity, opportunity, and civil discourse always have been at the heart of McKersie’s approach to intractable challenges. In 1965, he undertook a project for the Office of Federal Contract Compliance and Programs (OFCCP) that became the yardstick for the nation’s first affirmative action plans. “This office was responsible for finding ways to leverage the purchasing power of the federal government to advance civil rights,” explains McKersie. “We constructed a target selection system that helped increase the number and position levels of underrepresented minorities among federal contractors. The system also was used to justify budget requests and allocate resources for affirmative action offices in various government agencies.”

Fifty years later, McKersie uses the same guiding principles to help workers and employers resolve stalemates. In 2016, he and longtime colleague Lawrence Katz successfully mediated a lengthy contract dispute between Harvard University and its largest collective bargaining organization, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. Parties on both sides of the negotiations praised McKersie and Katz for their crucial roles in mediating a fair and thoughtful agreement on issues such as healthcare and salaries.

A scholar’s place in the world

Although McKersie is most famous for his transformational work in industrial relations, it’s his efforts in the arena of social justice that have given him the greatest satisfaction. “I would count my involvement in the civil rights movement as the most important chapter in my several careers as an academic, a practitioner, and a cheerleader for social change,” says McKersie.

Not only did he find himself in the midst of—and contributing to—one of the great social and political movements of the 20th century, McKersie developed lifelong friendships and gained deep insights into the potential of his own intellectual and spiritual convictions to affect change. In his book, A Decisive Decade: An Insider’s View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, McKersie explains how his work with pioneering Black empowerment organizations was inspired as much by personal convictions as by scholarly drive.

Inside the Chicago civil rights movement

Drawing from hands-on experiences with entities such as the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, and the federal Office of Minority Business Enterprise, McKersie reflects on the strategies these organizations employed, the gains they achieved, and how we might benefit from that history today. He also recounts how he was drawn into activism. “I crossed the threshold and became active in the developing civil rights movement as a result of meeting Tim Black.”

Office of Minority Business Enterprise (OMBE)

When President Richard Nixon appointed him to the OMBE Advisory Committee, McKersie consulted Jesse Jackson and other Black leaders in Chicago. “They thought I should accept but were very suspicious of ‘black capitalism’ and ‘minority enterprise’ as a token response to deeper needs of fundamental economic development. On the flip side, the appointment was yet another opportunity to advance the civil rights agenda with my head in addition to my heart and feet—demonstrating and marching.”

Early in their relationship, McKersie and Black discussed the possibility of pressuring one or more major Chicago employers to account for their hiring policies. In 1963, the two conceived a direct-action campaign against Motorola’s discriminatory employment practices. Armed with data showing that the company was turning away qualified black applicants at the hiring gates while white applicants were being accepted, Black and other leaders of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) scheduled a public protest.

“Just before the demonstration that was to take place at Motorola’s showroom in Chicago’s Loop district, the company agreed to meet with an NALC delegation,” says McKersie. “In a series of sessions with the vice president for human resources, Tim Black shaped a program for recruiting in the Black community, and the vice president agreed to personally monitor all referrals.” What made this approach effective, in McKersie’s view, was the NALC’s clear willingness to reinstate the demonstration if Motorola proved uncooperative—an embarrassment the company decided not to risk.

Negotiating for justice

“A number of insights emerge from reflecting on the negotiation process that took place between Motorola and the NALC,” notes McKersie. First, it demonstrated the principle that “parties only enter into discussions when they perceive that the cost of maintaining the status quo would be higher than entering negotiations.” Second, it provided an object lesson in the dynamics between two divergent negotiations strategies—“forcing” and “fostering.”

As McKersie explains, “The NALC restrained its ‘forcing’ by focusing on the objective of more jobs, by not personalizing the conflict, and by being willing to call off the demonstrations once the company agreed to negotiate.” On the Motorola side, lead negotiator Ken Piper exhibited “fostering” behavior when he “emphasized his commitment to the cause of more employment opportunities for African Americans, sought to establish rapport by empathizing, and personally followed up on every referral made by members of the NALC.”

Inspiration from the community of activists

Another Chicago model that bore fruit was Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket (OB). “Using the power of selective patronage, Jackson and his team were able to create shelf space for products from struggling Black suppliers as well as increasing job opportunities for African Americans,” McKersie explains.

OB also built capacity by providing technical assistance to Black suppliers and fostering self-help groups, which McKersie and University of Chicago colleagues and MBAs supported with seminars, mentorship, and advice on business development. “Attending Saturday morning OB meetings and watching Jesse Jackson in action was a wonderful tonic for a young assistant professor questioning the social utility of his teaching and research.”