Eckley grew up in Peoria, IL, graduated from Bradley University in 1942 with a B.A. in economics and completed an M.B.A. at the University of Minnesota, before serving for three years in the Coast Guard on the U.S.S. Davenport.
After WWII, he attended Harvard and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics in 1948 and 1949, respectively. Following two years as an Assistant Professor at Kansas, Eckley served an appointment as an industrial economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. From there, he became the manager of the Business-Economics Department of Caterpillar.
Robert S. Eckley was elected the 15th IWU President in 1968 and served until 1986.