Strikes and the Law in the U.S., 1881-1894: New Evidence on the Origins of American Exceptionalism

Janet Currie, Joseph Ferrie

NBER Working Paper No. 5368
Issued in November 1995
NBER Program(s):   DAE   LS

The origins of American exceptionalism þ the apolitical nature of American labor unions compared to their European counterparts þ have puzzled labor historians. Recently, the hypothesis has been advanced that organized labor abandoned attempts to win reform through legislation because the reforms did not have the desired consequences. We evaluate this claim using information on each state's legal environment and unique strike-level data on over 12,000 labor disputes between 1881 and 1894. We find that the law affected strike costs and strike outcomes, though not always in the anticipated directions. For example, laws outlawing blacklisting were associated with the increased use of strike breakers, while the legalization of unions, one of the hardest won legislative changes, had little impact. Only maximum hours laws had clearly pro-labor effects. Our results are consistent with the view that the American labor movement abandoned political activism and embraced business unionism because unions found the law to be an inaccurate instrument for effecting change in labor markets.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w5368

Published: (Published as "The Law and Labor Strife in the U.S.; 1881-1894") Journal of Labor History (March 2000).

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