Monday, May 1, 2023
Reddy on Reclaiming the Normative Stakes of Labor Unions
Diana Reddy (who is starting full-time next year at Berkeley--congrats!) just had her article, After the Law of Apolitical Economy: Reclaiming the Normative Stakes of Labor Unions, published in the Yale Law Journal. The abstract:
It is a consequential moment for American labor unions. Over the past decade, public support for labor unions has skyrocketed. Yet even in this moment of renewed public interest, I argue that the American conversation about unions remains constrained by the legacy of past legal decisions. Within the post-New Deal constitutional framework, unions were categorized as engaging in commercial activity, rather than advancing inherently normative claims about justice at work. I refer to this jurisprudential paradigm and the sociolegal accommodations that followed as the “law of apolitical economy.” Synthesizing labor history, legal doctrine, sociological theory on social movements, and original empirical work, this Feature traces the trajectory of the law of apolitical economy in courts, identifies its broader cultural reverberations, and marshals new evidence to show that it still matters today.
When liberal lawyers made the political and constitutional case for labor unions in the 1930s, they operated within a socioeconomic context radically altered by the Great Depression. Instead of arguing, as labor movement leaders had in the 1800s and early 1900s, that democracy required people to have autonomy and self-determination in their working lives, and instead of advancing unions’ own emergent fundamental rights claims, they emphasized labor law as sound economic policy, boosting aggregate demand and promoting industrial peace. In the new constitutional equilibrium that emerged after the New Deal, labor-union advocacy within the workplace was treated as transactional rather than normative.
This choice had benefits, but it also had costs. Under the law of apolitical economy, labor unions increasingly found themselves denied First Amendment protection for the forms of broad, solidaristic protest that built the labor movement. And as new social movements began pressing rights claims in the public sphere, labor unions came to be seen as categorically distinct, as interest groups rather than social-movement organizations. When supply-side economics gained prominence in the late 1970s, it was devastating for union legitimacy. New economic theories and the on-the-ground realities they facilitated undermined the New Deal-era economic arguments that had justified labor law. At the same time, unions’ ability to counter with broadly resonant normative arguments was hampered by the detritus of their previous legal bargain. In a moment when rights had become, in sociological parlance, the “master frame” for articulating justice claims, it was well-established that bread-and-butter unionism had little to do with rights, or even right and wrong.
Returning to the present day, I argue that the legacy of the law of apolitical economy continues to shape contemporary discourse, even with public approval at a sixty-year high. Faced with a decimated membership and a legitimacy crisis, labor-movement organizations have sought over the past decade to reassert the normative stakes of unionization. They have used what social scientists call “collective action frames” to show that unions further causes with defined normative stakes. These frames underscore the inherently intersectional role of labor unions in an unequal economy—as institutions that advance society-wide economic equity, racial and gender justice, and community well-being. Yet, they too often discount the value of unions’ primary statutory role: bringing workers together to improve their working conditions. In so doing, they fail to reclaim the inherently political vision of work and workers lost to the law of apolitical economy.
In conclusion, I reflect on the broader implications of this project. The dialogic relationship between law and social movements over the twentieth century—how labor unions were steered away from rights claims while other social movements were steered toward them—continues to shape American law and politics today. In turn, upending the law of apolitical economy can be about more than reclaiming the normative stakes of labor unions; it offers an opportunity to reclaim a transformative vision of rights.
Check it out!