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How American Workers Lost the Right to Strike, and Other Tales

37 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2006 Last revised: 7 Jun 2009

James Gray Pope

Rutgers Law School - Newark

Date Written: 2005


As a veteran labor scholar once said, if you want to know where the corpses are buried in labor law, look for the of course statements in court opinions. This essay traces the historical origins of five such of course statements, each of which has had a devastating impact on the American labor movement. The five statements are: (1) Workers have no right of self-defense against employers that commit unfair labor practices (NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation); (2) Employers enjoy the right permanently to replace economic strikers (NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Company); (3) The National Labor Relations Board has no power to deter unfair labor practices (Consolidated Edison Company v. NLRB); (4) Employers may exclude union organizers from their property (Lechmere, Inc. v. NLRB); (5) Employers may close operations out of spite against workers who choose to unionize (Textile Workers Union v. Darlington Manufacturing Company). The essay argues that in each of the five cases, the Court revived Lochner-era constitutional doctrines - supposedly defunct since the switch in time that saved nine in 1937 - and applied them to cut back on statutory labor rights. Although the five statements were not considered especially dangerous at the time, their impact has since been magnified by social and economic change. Taken together, they may account for a substantial proportion of the decline in the American labor movement. As in the pre-New Deal period, then, judges have deprived workers of the rights to organize and strike based on constitutional concerns. This time, however, they have avoided the forthright constitutional reasoning of the pre-1937 period, thereby insulating their rulings against changes in constitutional jurisprudence.

Keywords: labor, strikes, economic due process

JEL Classification: K31

Suggested Citation

Pope, James Gray, How American Workers Lost the Right to Strike, and Other Tales (2005). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 103, pp. 518-53, 2005; Rutgers School of Law-Newark Research Paper No. 009. Available at SSRN:

James Gray Pope (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law School - Newark ( email )

United States
973-744-3642 (Phone)
973-353-1445 (Fax)

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