Courtesy of Cornell University

Lois Spier Gray died Sept. 20 at the age of 94 after 72 years with ILR.

October 2, 2018

‘Giant’ of Workers’ Rights Lois Spier Gray Dies after 72 Years with ILR

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Lois Spier Gray, the Jean McKelvey-Alice Grant Professor of Labor Management Relations,  Emeritus, a lifelong advocate for workers’ rights and a driving force in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations for decades, died Sept. 20 at the age of 94.

Gray’s contributions to workers rights spanned from the end of World War II to the final days of her life in NYU Langone Hospital, a period in which the power of workers, women and minorities underwent constant change. Gray’s friends, family and colleagues recalled her decades of tireless service to improving the lives of working people. 

“Lois Gray was a giant, an amazing force and leader who never stopped leading during her 72 years with the ILR School. Her passion for building ILR’s teaching, research and service and her commitment to workplace fairness never waned. Lois was an inspiring mentor and adviser to so many of us,” said Kevin F. Hallock, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean of the ILR School and the Joseph R. Rich ’80 Professor of Economics and Human Resource Studies, in a University press release.

Gray was born on Oct.17, 1923, in St. Louis, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was known to speak out against racial injustice in a time and place that such speech could be dangerous, according to the University press release.

Gray’s deeply-held support for social justice and the plight of the downtrodden grew out of her upbringing in Edmond, Oklahoma, her niece, Bonnie Beavers, said according to the release. As a child, Gray watched her mother feed migrating victims of the dust bowl and saw the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross on the lawn of the parsonage where she lived. 

“This just became something that was ingrained in her, the equality of people. That all people should be treated with human dignity and with rights. And she translated that also from the question of racial dignity and rights, which she was always a strong proponent [of], worker rights,” said Esta Bigler ’70, director of Labor and Employment Law Programs for the ILR school in an interview with The Sun. 

Before beginning her career in labor issues, Gray was recruited into secret military intelligence work at the Pentagon, according to the University press release. In 1945, the same year the ILR school was founded, Gray started a job as a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo, and a year later began her 72-year career in the ILR school with a post in their Buffalo extension office.

During Gray’s tenure at the ILR school, she led efforts to establish numerous workers’ education programs, including Labor and Urban Affairs, Programs for Employment and Workplace Systems, the Institute for Women and Work, Summer Schools for Women Union Activists, the Latino Leadership Center, Hispanic Labor Leadership and Labor Studies for College Credit.

“She was a big believer in education, and that whatever knowledge we had on the Cornell Campus needed to be provided to those who were not on the Cornell campus — whether [they were] in Buffalo, Albany, Rochester [or] NYC. She almost believed in a university with no walls,” Bigler told The Sun.   

In 1956, Gray became the Director of Cornell ILR in New York City and earned her Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University. In the city, Gray launched pioneering programs to award workers college credit for taking liberal arts classes.

“When I think of Lois, I think of her never letting anything stop her. It was, ‘these are important things that have to be developed, that workers needed this kind of education. That workers needed to be able to sit at the table as equals with management,’” Bigler said.

Gray later became the Associate Dean and Director of ILR Extension Statewide. In 1970, she worked with Professors Jean McKelvey and Alice Grant, ILR to launch the state’s first training program for women arbitrators, and was later appointed chair of the New York State Apprenticeship and Training Council by three new York State governors, according to the University press release.

Gray’s long list of accolades, including Lifetime Achievement from the Labor and Employment Relations Association and the United Association for Labor Education, reflected the appreciation of her peers, many of whom spoke to the longevity of her contributions.

Maria Figueroa, Director of Labor and Policy Research at The Worker Institute, noted the influence of Gray’s research on the arts, media and entertainment industry, and her continued efforts late in life. Gray became emeritus professor and chair holder in 1998, but her work was far from done.

“She never stopped working for the school and supporting the programs of the outreach and extension division. She was admirable for the clarity of her thoughts and the sharpness of her mind. She’s never stopped thinking and strategizing about responses to the challenges facing workers and the broader society today,” Figueroa said.

In 2010, the Lois Gray Professorship of Industrial Relations and Social Science was created in her honor. Prof. Pamela Tolbert, the current holder of the position, recalls swapping stories with Gray about growing up in Oklahoma, and reflected on Gray’s going against the grain in her own time.

“I have to admit that I was always a little in awe of her. Unions weren’t particularly receptive to women in the post-WWII years, so the fact that she was able to have the impact that she did on the labor movement is a very impressive accomplishment — a testament to her gumption as well as her charm,” Tolbert told The Sun.

In 2015, Gray donated $1 million to establish the Harry Katz Fund for Innovation in ILR’s Worker Institute to further the work she dedicated her life to, and funded the Edward Gray Memorial Credit Internship Awards in honor of her late husband.

She continued her work at ILR’s Manhattan office until her death, according to the University’s press release.

Gray is survived by her sister’s children and grandchildren and her husband’s extended family.