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Reviewed by:
  • Labor Justice across the Americas ed. by Leon Fink and Juan Manuel Palacio
  • Jody Pavilack
Labor Justice across the Americas
Leon Fink and Juan Manuel Palacio, eds.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018
300 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $19.95 (e-book)

This collection of essays, based on archival work across the Americas, offers an innovative, comparative look at a significant yet surprisingly understudied facet of modern labor history: the development in the first half of the twentieth century of state institutions for adjudicating labor laws, from arbitration and conciliation boards to civil courts, criminal courts, and ultimately, in some cases, specialized labor courts. The editors of this volume, Juan Manuel Palacio and Leon Fink, are leading labor historians who have long promoted transnational understandings and practices of American hemispheric labor history. Here they present findings from a multiyear collaboration among regional specialists who themselves live, work, and communicate across both the Americas and Europe. Fink and Palacio, in their opening and concluding chapters, lay out an admittedly tentative shared narrative of central issues and historical developments, or what Palacio describes as "Elements for a Chronology of Labor Regulation in the Americas" (30). The rest of the book comprises nine national case studies grouped into three sections—part 1: The United States, Canada, and Mexico; part 2: Costa Rica, Colombia, and the Andean Countries; and part 3: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Each individual chapter offers a detailed narrative and discerning analysis about the history of that country's juridical institutions designed to actively infuse justice for workers into structurally unequal relations between labor and capital. These regulatory and/or mediatory mechanisms—a distinction discussed by Fink in the conclusion—were vital to the state-led capitalist development models of the 1920s–1950s, the temporal heart of all the essays in this collection.

Beyond the significant contributions of individual essays, what makes this volume especially insightful and methodologically innovative is the way each national story weaves in and out of the framing language, analytical template, and common-ground timeline sketched with great nuance by Fink and Palacio. Starting with Palacio's introductory chapter, "From Social Legislation to Labor Justice: The Common Background in the Americas," this volume pays homage to Eugene Bolton's 1932 American Historical Association address "The Epic of Greater America," in which he famously contended that neither Anglo-nor Hispanic American history could accurately be understood except as part of a larger whole. We might then anticipate an epic story of commonalities floating above the nitty-gritty of lived history, but that is not this volume. By pulling disparate case studies and scholarly preferences together around a central focus on labor justice, this anthology is able to take on "the considerable challenge of walking a fine line, balancing analysis of the general processes and the specific cases that describe them" (3).

These essays invoke "labor justice" with an array of meanings, including efforts to transform deep inequities going back to the colonial era as well as modern indigenous workers' struggles for inclusion in the benefits of national labor regimes. The [End Page 114] multivalence of this term serves the volume well, as the contributors are able to creatively pursue lines of inquiry particular to their own places of research and simultaneously to build upon or circle back to a more a narrowly shared notion of labor justice in the hemisphere. State actors across the Americas in the early twentieth century became convinced that unmediated structural inequalities between capitalists and workers would stymie national social and economic progress. They thus promoted the use of existing courts or the creation of new ones to "justly" mediate and resolve labor disputes. As Palacio explains, "As the key institutions for the enforcement of the new laws, the labor courts serve as the climax of this story" (38). A highly significant climax indeed, "The creation of specialized labor courts proved a landmark moment in the development of the legal system in the Americas and composed a central chapter in the process of state formation that occurred across the first half of the twentieth century" (1).

An ambitious transnational project developed around a specialized body of knowledge, this volume...


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