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Date: December 31, 1997
Richard A. Lester Dies at 89; Influential Economist and Dean of the Faculty at Princeton University
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Richard Allen Lester, a prominent labor economist and dean of the faculty, emeritus, at Princeton University, died suddenly on December 30. He was 89 and a resident of Meadow Lakes Retirement Community in Hightstown.
Professor Lester's best-known research addressed wage determination and minimum wages. In the 1940s, he developed the "range theory of wages," which recognized that individuals in similar jobs were often paid very differently. He used this theory to explain why higher minimum wages might not have the dire employment consequences predicted by their opponents. He assembled evidence from the textile industry showing that minimum wage increases in the 1940s had little systematic effect on employment. His analysis foreshadowed much of the modern research on the minimum wage.
After earning a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1929, Lester entered the graduate economics program at Princeton University, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1936. He served briefly as an instructor at Princeton, then became an assistant professor of labor law at the University of Washington (1938-40), and moved to Duke University, where he was an assistant and then associate professor of economics (1940-45). During World War II, he served successively in the Labor Division of the War Production Board, the War Manpower Commission (1942), and the Office of the Secretary of War (1943-44). While teaching at the Army Finance School at Duke, he also served as chairman of the Southern Textile Commission, National War Labor Board (1943-45).
In the fall of 1945, Lester returned to Princeton as an associate professor of economics. He advanced to full professor in 1948 and served several terms as chairman of the Economics Department. He was a research associate at Princeton's Industrial Relations Section continuously since 1945, and helped to establish the University as a leading center in labor economics. A popular lecturer in elementary economics and in labor courses, he published two textbooks, Economics of Labor (1941 and 1964 editions) and Labor and Industrial Relations (1951).
Lester published influential works on labor unions, labor relations, training programs, employment discrimination, unemployment insurance and arbitration. His book As Unions Mature (1958) drew on primary research in several countries, including England and Spain, and was translated into Japanese and Spanish.
From 1966 to 1968, Lester served as associate dean and director of the graduate program at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Over the next five years, he served as Princeton's dean of the faculty. In that office, he developed and administered a "target of opportunity" program, with special funds to aid in attracting outstanding teacher-scholars to the Princeton faculty, particularly women and minority candidates. From 1971 to 1973, he chaired a University-wide Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and drafted Princeton's first affirmative action program.
Lester's experience in the field of labor relations began with his work with the National War Labor Board. In 1954 and again in 1960, he arbitrated national wage disputes between the Locomotive Engineers Union and the Class I railroads under the Railway Labor Act. In 1957, he assisted Sen. John F. Kennedy in writing legislation to correct abuses of the internal affairs of labor unions. He later advised President Kennedy on unemployment compensation, minimum wages, and labor relations. Early in 1961, Kennedy appointed him to the President's Commission on the Airlines Controversy, an outgrowth of a strike by the Flight Engineers Union against five major airlines. In 1974, Gov. Brendan T. Byrne appointed him chairman of the N.J. Public Employer-Employee Relations Study Commission. The commission's report in 1976 contained a draft bill providing for arbitration of negotiating impasses, which was later incorporated in the Police and Fire Arbitration Act. Lester subsequently performed an intensive study of the first decade of experience under that landmark legislation.
Lester's professional interest in unemployment and unemployment compensation began in the depths of the Great Depression, when he chose to write his Ph.D. dissertation on Unemployment Relief in New Jersey. He assisted in drafting the N.J. Unemployment Compensation Act, and served as chairman of the N.J. Employment Security Council from 1955 to 1965. In 1962 he published The Economics of Unemployment Compensation, which remains a widely used resource.
His interest in employment discrimination intensified when he was appointed by President Kennedy to serve as vice-chairman of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (1961-63). Lester chaired the commission following the death of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Lester was elected to the Princeton Borough Council in 1957 and served as its president in 1960.
Lester was a founder of the Industrial Relations Research Association in 1948, and served as its president in 1956. He was elected vice-president of the American Economic Association in 1961. He served as a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (1959-63).
From 1962 to 1964 he was president of the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni. He also served on the editorial board and as vice-president of the Princeton University Press.
Born March 1, 1908 in Blasdell, N.Y., he was the son of the late Dr. Garra K. Lester, a medical doctor, and the late Jessie I. Lester, a schoolteacher.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Doris N. Lester; three children, Margaret L. Wing of Mendham, N.J., Harriet L. Tarver of Atlanta, and Robert A. Lester of Charlottesville, Va.; six grandchildren, Margaret Allyn Gallerani of Wellesley, Mass., Jack W. Tarver III of Bishop, Ga., Richard E. Wing of West Orange, N.J., Elisabeth A. Wing of New York City, Isabel Lester and Roderick Lester, both of Charlottesville; and a brother, John W. Lester of Hamburg, N.Y.
A memorial service is planned at Princeton University in February.