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  • Editor's Introduction
  • Leon Fink

Although they examine quite discrete topics and derive from diverse initiatives, the contributions in this issue have much in common. The essays and exchanges (and even several of the books under review) all engage the problem of a seismic shift in employment, industrial relations, and labor organization and strategy from the era of the Great Depression to our own times.

We begin with Joseph A. McCartin's probing reassessment of the principles behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), officially vouchsafed by the US Supreme Court eighty years ago. Not surprisingly, given the precipitous fall of organized labor strength, scholarship since the late 1970s has focused on what role the law itself and its administration have played in this decline as well as on what conceivable remedial legal measures might arrest it. After a painstaking summary of radical critiques of the Act, McCartin effectively warns us against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The NLRA's preamble, often criticized for linking labor rights to the constitution's commerce clause and a growing economy rather than to more fundamental "rights" doctrines, had the virtue, argues McCartin, of linking union bargaining power to a larger "vision of political economy." He suggests that enhancing bargaining power (even more than freedom of association, which tends to receive [End Page 1] much attention from critics) must remain a central purpose of any structural reform of the law. Finally, he insists that the conversation about labor law reform must be tied, as it was in the 1930s, to a larger revitalization of American political democracy.

Three astute critics take on selective aspects of McCartin's larger framework. Dorothy Sue Cobble assails the clunky, bureaucratic "industrial-union premises" of the law as "problematic from the outset." Rather than try to expand the NLRA's limited reach piecemeal to "white-collar, managerial, self-employed, mobile, and contingent" work sectors, she argues for a move away from contract unionism (and from reliance on the law itself) and toward embrace of labor's "long freedom struggle" evident in worker self-activity long before passage of the NLRA. The most promising aspects of contemporary struggle, she suggests—as evidenced in new institutions like worker centers and cooperatives and in movements for paid family and sick leave—are occurring outside the NLRA and the attempts to reform it. With surgical precision, Craig Becker zeroes in on one central failing of the law (which conceivably could be corrected by amendment): though the act's Section 7 rhetorically offered workers a right "to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing," in practice it sapped union energies through the (increasingly arduous) process of choosing—or not choosing—union representation rather than enforcing the right to bargain. How to recommit to this most basic purpose of the Wagner Act in a drastically changed work environment, he suggests, is the central challenge facing reformers. Katherine Stone elaborates on just this latter point. Many of the basic assumptions about labor law—beginning with a stable bargaining unit—have effectively been rendered moot by today's fluid labor markets and "boundaryless" workplaces. "Minority unions" as practiced in Continental Europe (where smaller [End Page 2] groups of workers seek benefits that will, by law, be extended to all employees in a given sector) offers one hopeful example in this direction. Readers will definitely want to see how McCartin responds.

In addition to "rights at work" as adjudicated by the Wagner Act, Michael Dennis reminds us that the Depression era (and especially its World War II aftermath) also gave rise to serious policy discussion of a "right to work" to be realized in a full-employment economy. Challenging a conventional wisdom that sees New Deal economic radicalism, as associated with state-based regulation and planning, diluted by the late 1930s into tepid forms of fiscal Keynesianism, Dennis depicts Keynesian-demand policies encapsulated in the 1945 Murray Full Employment Bill as a challenge "to some of the most cherished prerogatives of capitalism." Carefully extrapolating the work of so-called liberal economists like Alvin Hansen and Michal Kalecki, Dennis argues that the full-production options they sketched out within a market economy set up an inevitable...


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