The Ossification of American Labor Law

Posted: 13 Dec 2002


This article argues that the ineffectuality of American labor law and the shrinking scope of collective representation and collective bargaining are partly traceable to the law's "ossification" - to its having been essentially sealed off both from democratic revision and renewal and from local experimentation and innovation to a remarkably complete extent and for a remarkably long time. The elements of this process of ossification are various and familiar; yet, once assembled, they make up an impressive set of barriers to innovation. Most obviously, the National Labor Relations Act has been virtually unamendable for over forty years due to an exceptionally durable congressional deadlock. But the labor law scheme has also been effectively cut off from "market"-driven competition by employers; from the entrepreneurial energies of individual plaintiffs and the plaintiff's bar, and the creativity they can sometimes coax from the courts; from variation and experimentation at the state or local level by representative or judicial bodies; from the winds of changing constitutional doctrine; and from emerging transnational legal norms. Finally, the National Labor Relations Board - the designated institutional vehicle for adjusting the labor laws to modern conditions - is increasingly hemmed in by the age of the text and the large body of judicial interpretations that has grown up over the years. While the argument may seem to counsel only pessimism about the prospects for reform, it may also help to identify potential pathways of change that have not been fully appreciated. Indeed, some of those pathways are being paved by the process of ossification itself. By impelling private parties to find their own paths outside of the existing regime, the ossification of labor law may be setting in motion the very forces that may eventually lead toward legal change.

Suggested Citation

Estlund, Cynthia L., The Ossification of American Labor Law. Columbia Law School, Pub. Law Research Paper No. 02-50 and Columbia Law and Econ. Working Paper No. 213, Available at SSRN:

Cynthia L. Estlund (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
(212) 998-6184 (Phone)
(212) 995-4881 (Fax)


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