Protection by Law, Repression by Law: Bringing Labor Back Into Law and Social Movement Studies
86 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2020 Last revised: 8 May 2020
Date Written: March 3, 2020
Within the rich, interdisciplinary field that studies law and social movements, the focus has been on movements that advanced rights-based claims on behalf of historically marginalized groups; surprisingly little attention has been paid to the labor movement. Yet, organized labor was the largest social movement of the early twentieth century, and even in its weakened state today, remains one of the most important agents of economic redistribution to low- and middle-income people. In this Article, we challenge the line-drawing which has led to the erasure of the labor movement from the field’s conception of a social movement. In so doing, we offer new theories of the role law plays in social movement activism.
The labor movement’s experience with law illustrates that the relationship between law and social movements is not only about movements proactively engaging with law, but about law being imposed upon movements in order to channel protest into forms more palatable to authority. Here, we draw from an unexplored case study of the relationship between law and organized labor as the New Deal era was giving way to the “rights revolutions” of the 1960s. In 1952, the Supreme Court affirmed the first major damages judgment – almost $10 million in today’s dollars – against a labor union whose members had picketed outside an Alaska lumber mill. Lawyers battled for seven years over whether the judgment would bankrupt the union and wipe out the organizing gains that the union had made from Alaska to California and Hawai’i. Through detailed analysis of the conditions giving rise to this dispute and the decision’s consequences for the union and the labor movement more broadly, we show how the law operated to discipline unions, and to deny them legitimacy as a social movement.
Bringing labor back into the conversation about law and social movements re-centers the role of law in constructing the jurisprudential boundaries which channeled social movement activity throughout the twentieth century. As social movements today struggle against these boundaries in order to assert more inter-sectional grievances, interrogating our taken-for-granted notions about law and movements could not be more important.
Keywords: Labor, Social Movements, Employment, Protest
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