The Enduring Legacy of the Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law
University of Colorado Law School
This paper explores the history of sit-down strikes from the New Deal Era and beyond and traces their influence on the substance of modern labor law. It argues that, even as the sit-down strikes proved essential to the development of a meaningful system of labor rights, the strikes also had a very different effect. As this paper undertakes to demonstrate, legal and political attacks on labor rights that were originally aimed at the sit-down strikes metastasized into a more general campaign to prohibit a range of militant strike practices, even those bearing little outward resemblance to the original sit-down strikes. The resulting consequences for organized labor have been quite grave, as this dynamic has helped eviscerate the right to strike and, in effect, deprived labor of weapons it desperately needs to mount any meaningful challenge to the entrenched power of employers in the workplace. In this way, the reaction to the strikes helps to account for the dire state that organized labor finds itself in today. Bringing this out is important not so much because it reveals some simple legal formula for rebuilding labor rights but, to the contrary, because it speaks to the tremendous difficulties that await any such effort. Indeed, this paper argues, the reactionary legacy of the sit-down strikes suggest inherent, perhaps insuperable, limits that may appertain to the right to strike in liberal society. In addition to offering this account of how the sit-down strikes shaped modern labor law, this paper also demonstrates that the strikes were more extensive and enduring than students of labor history commonly assume.
Keywords: Labor Law, Sit-Down Strikes, Right to Strike, Taft-Hartley Act
Date posted: June 1, 2008
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