Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cedric de Leon's "The Origins of Right to Work"

Cedric de Leon is Associate Professor of Sociology at Providence College. He is the author of Party and Society: Reconstructing a Sociology of Democratic Party Politics and co-editor of Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society. Before becoming a professor de Leon was by turns an organizer, a local union president, and a rank-and-file activist in the U.S. labor movement.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago, and reported the following:
The Origins of Right to Work is about the bait-and-switch that characterizes the place of workers in American democracy: enticed by the American Dream, they are at the same time prohibited from fulfilling its promise through the collective power of their unions. Right to work laws allow workers to reap the benefits of union contracts without having to pay the dues or fees that support the daily operation of unions.

These and other limits to collective bargaining have led many scholars to speculate on why the United States is so antilabor compared to other liberal capitalist democracies. Most of these folks emphasize the role of workers or judges in inaugurating the distinctly antilabor ethos of American democracy. In The Origins of Right to Work, I argue that we need to look more closely at the changing relationship between nineteenth-century political parties and workers.

Page 99 casts doubt on the notion that judges were responsible for right to work laws. Such laws were – and are – statutory laws passed by politicians in state legislatures, not decisions handed down by the courts on the basis of legal precedence. Indeed, as I point out on page 99, even the landmark court decisions (e.g., Commonwealth v. Hunt [1842]; The Danbury Hatters' Case [1908]) were shaped by the context of party politics.

As an alternative to the judiciary thesis, I argue that right to work laws emerged because workers, who were once loyal Republicans and Democrats, defected from the major parties into trade unions, socialist parties, and revolutionary organizations. Unable to persuade nineteenth-century workers with the same old political slogans, the two-party system instead tried to control workers through right to work laws and violent force.
Learn more about The Origins of Right to Work at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue