Theses Doctoral

From Wagner to Taft-Hartley, Revisited

Daniel, Anthony Michael

This dissertation is guided by two questions: why was the right to collective, abrupt cessation of work and production sharply truncated at the height of labor’s power during the New Deal; and, further, what does this mean for our polity? The extant laws governing workplace protest have gone unchanged since the 1947 Taft- Hartley amendments to the 1935 Wagner Act. This dissertation revisits the Wagner to Taft-Hartley period - 1935 to 1947 - to identify commonalities in the politics surrounding state adoption of Taft-Hartley precursor laws, particularly those pertaining to the right to strike.
In the first chapter, I outline the motivation for revisiting the New Deal period and the specific importance of union militancy for realizing working-class programmatic aspirations on the shop floor and beyond. I also outline the key empirical puzzle of my dissertation: why did some states adopt anti-strike laws while others did not?
In the second chapter, I analyze the volume and content of the newspaper coverage of labor militance during the New Deal period through Reconversion with a particular focus on landmark historical episodes. In general, I find that coverage of strikes mirrored their incidence. However, the content of the coverage of strikes tended to carry more negative source-messages than positive. Further, the coverage tended to decontextualize the class conflict wrought by strikes. These content analyses suggest that the apparent lack of class consciousness on the part of the unemployed or the industrial workers was buttressed by the media. Given the prevalence
of anti-strike messaging, the scope for rallying a majority to forestall retrenchment in the mass polity was greatly limited.
In the third chapter, I assess the evidence for parallel publics in the late 1930s and the limits of public tolerance for industrial militance. Based on Gallup surveys, I find that the mass public, across regional and class lines, had limited tolerance for industrial militance well before the Reconversion strikes, which are traditionally considered the proximate cause for the move to Taft-Hartley. This tandem subgroup variation in opinion is suggestive of an anti-labor bulwark in pre-War mass opinion. This implies that at the height of its power, and in light of the president’s advocacy in the court-packing episode, organized labor did not command substantial popular support.
In the fourth chapter, I directly analyze the states and ask why did states adopt anti-strike laws and why did states retrench against protective laws they had? I find support for the claim that the laws were adopted swiftly to contain strikes. Furthermore, I find that the 1938 elections in the North as well as the South ensured the decline of the right to strike. Partisan changeover is an important variable but is the intermediary to backlash against the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The backlash toward the Congress of Industrial Organizations chiefly took the form of American Federation of Labor resistance and agriculture opposition. The seats con- trolled by agriculture in the state chambers turned against the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the elections of 1938 and sought laws to contain the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In this chapter and throughout the dissertation, I chiefly attend to the cases of New York, Wisconsin, and Utah because they vary on the
dependent variable from full retrenchment to no retrenchment until Taft-Hartley. The method of difference indicates that disruption-backlash is the best single explanation for the emergent pattern of United States labor relations. Furthermore, the experience of these states exemplified the difficulties the union militants faced in the electorate and mass polity.
The fifth and final chapter observes that the American people more or less got what they wanted from New Deal labor law development and asks whether the abridgments of worker liberty implied by broadly de-legitimized rights to strike are normatively sustainable (i.e. were the proponents of Wagner reform correct in their insistence that collective bargaining rights were essential to freedom?) and draws upon work in history and political theory to advance the proposition that even a minimal conception of citizenship freedom requires a usable right to strike. Moreover, I suggest that the latter-day trend to oligarchic politics is best understood with reference to shop floor quiescence arising from the decades-old strike restrictions.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Shapiro, Robert Yale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 8, 2017