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Free Labor Today

James Gray Pope

Rutgers Law School - Newark

Peter Kellman

Southern Maine Labor Council

Ed Bruno

National Nurses Organizing Committee

May 2, 2007

New Labor Forum, Spring 2007, pp. 8-18
Rutgers School of Law-Newark Research Paper No. 067

During the first half of the 20th Century, the period when all of the United States’ major workers’ rights statutes were enacted, the American labor movement claimed the rights to organize and strike under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S Constitution. Beginning in 1909, it was the official policy of the American Federation of Labor that a worker confronted with an unconstitutional injunction had an “imperative duty” to “refuse obedience and to take whatever consequences may ensue.” At a time when union institutions were as weak as they are today, every attack on workers’ rights was met with an impassioned defense of the constitutional rights to organize and strike. At the same time, the movement took a long-term approach to legislative reform, demanding the full freedom to associate in organizing unions and staging strikes. In recent decades, by contrast, the movement has often shied away from defending the right to strike at moments of conflict (the 2005 New York subway strike being a prominent example), and has shaped its legislative proposals to fit what it sees as the short-run possibilities (for example, the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes no attempt to protect the right to strike). This article suggests that elements of the old labor movement’s constitutional strategy might be useful in the struggle for workers’ rights today.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 12

Keywords: Labor, Workers' Rights, Thirteenth Amendment, Labor Unions

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Date posted: June 5, 2010 ; Last revised: April 16, 2013

Suggested Citation

Pope, James Gray and Kellman, Peter and Bruno, Ed, Free Labor Today (May 2, 2007). New Labor Forum, Spring 2007, pp. 8-18; Rutgers School of Law-Newark Research Paper No. 067. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1619664 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1619664

Contact Information

James Gray Pope (Contact Author)
Rutgers Law School - Newark ( email )
United States
973-744-3642 (Phone)
973-353-1445 (Fax)
Peter Kellman
Southern Maine Labor Council ( email )
31 Exchange Street
2nd Floor
Portland, ME 04101
United States
Ed Bruno
National Nurses Organizing Committee ( email )
2000 Franklin Street
Oakland, CA 94612
United States
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