Alumnus, Bob Hebdon, Establishes CIRHR Graduate Student Fellowship

April 14, 2023 by Andy Vatiliotou

It’s with excitement and gratitude that we announce the inception of the Robert (Bob) Hebdon Fellowship, thanks to a generous gift from its namesake and Centre alumnus, Bob Hebdon.

Bob had a 24-year career as the Senior Research Officer and Research Director with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) before completing his PhD at the Centre from 1988-1992. He taught collective bargaining for seven years at the School of Industrial Relations at Cornell University, and joined McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management in 2000 following a year at the University of Manitoba. He was Associate Dean for Student Affairs, in the McGIll BCom Program from 2012 to 2014 and also has experience as a neutral in labour-management relations, acting as an arbitrator in Ontario.

In addition to the Morley Gunderson Prize, he was awarded the Canadian Pacific Scholarship in 1989, and the Gérard Dion award, presented by the Canadian Industrial Relations Association in recognition of outstanding contributions to the discipline.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bob to talk about his time at the Centre, the inspiration behind his very generous donation, and a distinguished 50-year career that shows no signs of slowing down.

You came to the Centre to complete a PhD in 1988. Which experiences/people stand out from that time?

I’ve said it before, but the library was pivotal to my education, and we just had the most stellar teachers at the Centre, starting with Morley Gunderson who was my thesis advisor. The late Professor Noah M. Meltz (see page 4) was an institution and a wonderful member of my defense committee, as was David Foot.

I also have to acknowledge Frank Reid who was instrumental in my graduating when I did. I got my job at Cornell before completing my PhD, and naturally, they expected me to have my degree in-hand. Frank, who was the Acting Director at the time, stepped in and got me through the process of graduating and setting up my defense. That may sound like a small administrative detail, but it was so important. He also made an enormous contribution to my thesis defense by asking me what was perhaps the toughest question – but a very good question! One that made me think.

That’s fantastic – do you remember what he asked you?

I do actually. I did a study that showed that grievance arbitration rates were higher when the right-to-strike was restricted or prevented by law; in other words, conflict that would normally occur during a strike gets rechanneled through individual forms, and you end up getting more grievances.

Frank noticed that in the raw data, if you ran a regression/correlation, the finding wasn’t significant when it came to public sector right-to-strike, but when you add the control variables, it’s quite significant – the question was, why?

And the answer?

In the public sector, most jobs are white collar, and white collar workers have lower grievance rate, and lower grievance arbitration rate. It tends to be more significant when you control for them.

Frank has to be complimented. He was known for asking tough questions, and it was a really good one. He was also very kind to me.

You’ve had such a long and storied career. Talk to me about your career trajectory.

My career has come in three stages. I worked at OPSEU for 24 years and, after completing my PhD at the Centre in 1992, I began a 23-year career as an academic. By 2015, I was fully expecting to retire, but then I got a call from Cavalluzzo LLP, a law firm that was challenging the postal worker back-to-work law. They were looking for an industrial relations expert to draft a report on the right-to-strike and its importance.

I thought, “Okay, I’m retired. I have time,” but then I ended up doing a lot of cases for different law firms across various provinces, mostly focused on constitutional challenges of labour legislation, ie: back to work, wage control laws, etc. I’ve essentially begun a third career as an expert witness, and I’m really enjoying it.

Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to establish the Robert (Bob) Hebdon Fellowship?

I noticed in my reading for a recent wage-control case in Ontario that there isn’t much known about the details of how collective bargaining actually works. Collective bargaining is a protected activity under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but if you suspend collective bargaining like the Ontario government did – basically preventing bargaining over wages – can you still have collective bargaining?

There’s almost no literature in our field to answer the question, “Do you take away collective bargaining if you take away negotiation on wages? When is it not collective bargaining? What are the boundaries of it?”

I’d like to see more research on collective bargaining, which is one of the reasons I established the fellowship. This third career was also a direct result of my time at U of T and the academic career that followed, so I really wanted to give back to the Centre.

And we’re deeply grateful, Bob – thank you. To wrap things up, we like to ask our alumni to impart a few words of wisdom, for an incoming student looking to maximize their time at the Centre, and/or a graduating student entering the world of work.

I know it’s not always possible, but I think it’s great to have a little work experience when you begin studying industrial relations and human resources. It’s a very practical and hands-on discipline, and even a summer job in the field will help you get more out of the experience, and benefit you after graduating.

When it comes to publishing journal articles, aim high, and remember that it’s about quality, not quantity. Do the absolute best work you can and shoot for the top journal.

And collaborate. Form alliances, work with others, go to IR meetings and conferences, and network with people working on similar topics. You never know where those conversations will lead.