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John Kelly

John Kelly's oration

President, Master, Graduates and Granduands, Guests, and Colleagues,

Today it is my great honour to welcome John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations, to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Kelly has been a prominent member of our Department of Management since 2003. He grew up in in a working-class household in Derby, to Irish immigrant parents. He was the eldest of six children, all eight members of the family crowded together in a three-bedroom semidetached house. Like many children of Irish immigrants, his parents were passionate about education, so he became the first in his immediate family to go to university. He chose the University of Sheffield, which had a good psychology department. He was awarded a first-class degree in 1973. He then went to the LSE where he did his PhD (awarded 1979), then post-doc.

This was when he developed what were to become some of the intellectual passions of his life: workplace conflicts, trade unionism, comparative employment relations, comparative labour politics, and how to make work more enriching for people. These topics seemed more akin to the research that was being done in by academics in industrial relations, rather than psychology so, in 1980, he was appointed to a position in the Department of Industrial Relations at the LSE. By 2003, he was a Professor in the Department. He stayed there for 24 years, contributing to debates about the identity of industrial relations - was it about management, or human relations, or fundamental ideas about social justice?

By 2003, he recognised that it was time for a change. He had been happy at the LSE, but, after 23 years, he was worried about becoming institutionalised a la Erving Goffman. Teaching Birkbeck’s mature students also appealed to him: they were dedicated and passionate about learning. And as a dedicated and passionate teacher himself, Birkbeck was an ideal location for him.

His has been an extraordinary career. He has produced some of the classics in industrial relations literature. His passions include industrial democracy, social pacts, ethical socialism, trade unionism, collective action and strikes, comparative employment relations, social democracy, electoral reform, Marxism, contemporary Trotskyism, labour movements, and social movement theory. He is not shy of suggesting future prospects for industrial relations, including union strategies for revitilisation.

Kelly is also known for his extensive archival research, clear theoretical framework, and methodological sophistication. He is rigorous. He makes use of interviews, questionnaires, and observation as well as written documents. Reviewers of his work contend that he introduces “fresh approaches” to the field. As another reviewer concluded, he produces books that “belong on the shelf of every serious industrial relations scholar." For his contributions to scholarship, he was made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the leading professional body of social sciences in the UK.

He is no ivory-tower academic. Politics is central to his life. He had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1979, which he left just before its dissolution in 1991. He is active in trade union education, the UCU, and the civil service union. He is known for entering tense, conflict-ridden situations, and facilitating constructive discussions and consensus.

He never shies away from work. At Birkbeck’s Department of Management, he has always been a team player. He was Head of Department and Research Director. Colleague contend that he has been instrumental in raising the status of the Department to being one of the leading Management Departments in the country.

He is renowned for his “human touch”: his interpersonal skills in bringing into dialogue people from very diverse political positions. He combines powerful critical eye with a sense of humour.

But who is the man? One of the joys of his life has been being a husband to Dr Caroline Kelly, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Psychology and Counselling, at the Open University, as well as a hands-on father to three children. He is a film buff, watching 120 to 150 movies a year. His tastes are Catholic: Jason Bourne, Israeli documentaries, Latin American psychological thrillers. One of his post-retirement projects is a project on representations of unions and strikes in British and American cinema.

Most of all, he is a Birkbeckian. His colleagues speak about him as much more than a research star. He is a mentor to them all and a brilliant communicator. He is “caring”, supportive, and sociable. Quite simply, he is liked by all.

We are deeply honoured that he has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.